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Thursday, 15 July 2010

International lessons for the UPND-PF pact

It is still early days in the UK coalition government but I think it still provides interesting  lessons for the UPND and PF as they forge ahead given the recent external pressures. Four lessons particularly come to mind which addresses many of the comments made by various stakeholders.

1. Parties of opposite ideologies can work together.  The relative differences in ideological positions of parties need not be a barrier for them to work together. A number of political commentators in the UK were sceptical in the aftermath of the election whether the Lib-Con deal would emerge due to differences in their respective ideologies. Similarly, in the Zambian press we have see many political NGOs (affectionately referred to as PONGOs) mention time and time again that the UPND-PF pact is not viable because the two parties have different ideologies. The UPND  is apparently more centre right (liberal / market oriented) whilst PF is seen as a centre left party (in the tradition of Labour). As such UPND is much closer to MMD right wing ideology than perhaps it is to the PF. As the UK coalition government has demonstrated such differences do not always trump when big issues are at stake. It also means there's no need for PF and UPND to ever merge. Its not necessary. They can both remain ideologically divided and still cooperate. Its a government not a marriage.

2. Unite around a programme of government.  In the absence of realigned ideologies, a coalition's stability is derived from the unity around the programme of government. In the UK example the respective political parties face the challenge of post crisis economy with rising public debt and the social urgency for political reform (the UK is particularly facing structural challenges on how best to diversify away from a service based economy - the source of its vulnerability). A government agenda has been built to deliver change in these areas. If the UPND-PF pact is to be similarly stable, the two parties must quickly identify important areas where they agree and where common solutions can be forged to deliver change. These areas should be problems that are clearly spelt out to the public and for which the good will of the people would be inevitable. I am no political expert but it seems to me that in this respect what our people want is no different from what UK citizens desire, the difference is only in level of expectation. Zambians want a strong economy built around a strong program of poverty reduction and a much greater control over the political system. I believe these underpin the call for more empowerment of Zambians, increased control of our natural resources and the general disgust over the NCC process and the current government persecution of political opponents and the media.

3.  Compromises are inevitable. In a coalition partnership one cannot have everything he / she desires. By its nature coalition arrangement impose significant electoral adjustments. People who compromise put the interests of the nation above party political goals. For example this means that people must accept that only one leader of the coalition can be President. But how are these compromises made? The evidence from the UK suggests that democracy plays a critical role. We see for example that the largest amount of policies adopted by the coalition government comes from the Conservatives, with the Liberal Democrats only having a small share. That is because the Conservatives are the largest party and the Liberal Democrats understand that the people have given a the largest party a vote of confidence in those policies.  Similarly when it comes to the numbers of cabinet ministers the Conservative have more than the Liberal Democrats.  In the UPND-PF context either party must accept that the larger party would have more of its policies reflected in the programme of government. Now this is tricky for the two parties because we wont know until the votes are cast. It might be that UPND does well enough to scoop North Western, Western, Southern  and Central and emerges the largest party in the coalition. Or it may not be the case and PF sweeps more seats.  I think it will be important that the coalition deal between the two is done in two stages. A general agreement before the votes and further arrangements afterwards. The challenge of course will be preventing reneging by some - that is where trust is built, it is also linked to lesson four.

4.  Transparency and internal party democracy are paramount. What has really struck me about observing the UK coalition discussions is the level of transparency. Not only were the various discussions helped by the Civil Service, but as the drama unfolded the information was being made available to the media and their respective MPs. Everyone knew who was talking to who. The leaders were keen to spell out what is it they were offering the other side and what the other side was demanding in return. Towards the end of the process the time came for the leaders to offer the "deal" to their respective parties for rubber stamping. In short they were no shoddy deals. The substance of the deal was published before government was formed with a more detailed version emerging later. Transparency is absolutely necessary to command confidence of the public. One hopes that this is a lesson UPND and PF will learn. When the pact is formally launched, we expect strong commitments on how internal party democracy would be respected and how they aim to show to the Zambian people that it is all above board. This is a real opportunity for the two parties to elevate how our politics are done.

I end with a word of caution. These are "lessons" not a sort of Washington consensus style template for what would make the deal between UPND and PF legitimate. Each party and people have a right to do things their way as they see fit. I offer these only because in "the multitude of counsellors there's victory".  Learning from what others have done is valuable though we must avoid the usual problem of sakism.

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