Zambia – When Presidents Issue Death Threats

Earlier this month, President Edgar Lungu, in a very unpresidential move, issued what amounted to a death threat targeting the editor of The Post newspaper, Fred M’membe. Lungu’s comments bring into focus the increasingly bitter factionalism within Zambia’s ruling party, the Patriotic Front (PF), as well as that party’s dimming electoral prospects ahead of next year’s polls.

Lungu became president last January in a by-election after the death of his predecessor and the PF party founder Michael Sata. His victory followed a divisive nomination battle within the PF itself, which produced two opposing camps, one led by Lungu and a second aligned with then acting President Guy Scott’s preferred nominee. The PF split was only exacerbated after the former President from the opposition Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD), Rupiah Banda, threw his weight behind Lungu. Banda’s influence—bolstered by his considerable financial support of Lungu’s campaign—is credited with compelling Lungu to adopt a more ‘pro-business’ policy stance. This shift in focus—including promises to reverse a prior PF government decision increasing royalty taxes in the mining sector—further alienated many within the PF who were originally opposed to Lungu’s candidacy.

M’membe of The Post was among the notable erstwhile PF supporters now disillusioned with Lungu’s leadership. The prominent editor had previously used his paper to champion the government of Michael Sata. Now the same paper has become a vehicle to mudsling the current President while propping up the political campaigns of former PF Secretary General and founder of the new opposition Rainbow Party, Wynter Kabimba. Kabimba fell out with Sata before his death and subsequently challenged Lungu’s leadership from the left. While Kabimba formally exited the PF, many of those who belonged to the same left-leaning faction—once known as the Cartel—remain.

The ferocity of Lungu’s recent outburst against M’membe is indicative of tensions stemming both from his fragile position within the PF and from his party’s overall declining popularity. After finding himself indebted to a number of his own Cabinet ministers post election, Lungu is now trying to consolidate his hold over the party. This effort involves simultaneously accommodating newcomers from the MMD brought over as a result of Banda’s support. In this vein, The PF Chairperson for Elections indicated last month that the party would ‘rebrand’ ahead of the 2016 polls and that, crucially, 70% of sitting PF MPs would not be re-selected to run as parliamentary candidates.

These intra-party woes are not the only challenge, however. Zambia’s foundering economy, hit hard by the fall in copper prices, is eroding the PF’s popular support. These losses are all the more worrying given Lungu’s nail-bitingly thin, 30,000-vote January victory over the lead opposition candidate, Hakainde Hichelema of the United Party for National Development (UPND). Lungu’s alliance with Banda also is not as secure as it might be. Banda reportedly threatened to back Hichilema after Lungu refused to see him following an impromptu visit to State House. Banda has supported Hichilema’s UPND before. As was the case with Banda’s most recent turn to the PF, which came after he failed to secure his position as MMD presidential flagbearer, his erstwhile support for the UPND was a means of snubbing rival factions within his own party.

Extrapolating from Lungu’s attack on M’membe, the overall picture we get is of a President on tenterhooks who is struggling to unite his own party against the backdrop of an ever more factious party system. Elite level splits within parties are producing a variable geometry of party alignment and re-alignment, driven forward by personal antagonism and reinforced through ideological differences. Whatever the outcome in next year’s elections, the stakes are high. Given that previous ruling parties have receded into oblivion after losing in the polls, the very survival of the PF as a viable party is in question.

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