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Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Lessons from Mangango

By Bruce Choma 

The victory recorded by the Patriotic Front in the recently held by-election in Mangango is no mean achievement for them as a party seeking to establish national character.

Opposition political parties in Zambia still have a lot to learn about the voting attitude of people in rural areas. They need to take a few steps back and ask themselves critical questions around their strategy and messaging.

The Mangango polls were marred with electoral violence with clashes mainly between cadres and agents of the ruling Patriotic Front and the UPND. This did not do well to level the playing field and to an extent contributed to voter apathy.

The PF is successfully using these incidences to paint the opposition as violent a tag they have to deal with in the upcoming five by-elections.

The opposition cannot campaign only on the basis of attacking President Sata and labelling PF as a failed project. They must revisit their messages to the electorate. The government is laying down the infrastructure and working to deliver public services in rural communities that felt neglected for many years.

The opposition must rebrand themselves and find ways of endearing themselves to the people by addressing issues that directly concern the electorate such as the cost of living and issues around the management of the agricultural sector and youth employment.

President Sata spoke to issues of poverty and mismanagement of the country by the MMD in a manner that endeared him to the people and his tactical approaches cannot be underplayed.

The opposition should not cry foul but must learn from the Patriotic Front and from President Michael Sata in particular in terms of political tact. President Sata is right in saying that the Mangango victory and indeed the PF’s scooping of 18 out of 25 by-elections is an indication that the PF strategies and messages are receiving some acceptance.

Numbers do not lie. The PF maybe justified in claiming that they are gaining some ground in Western, Central and Southern Provinces giving the victories in Mkushi, Kalabo and Kaoma.

The biggest loser in Mangango is the former ruling party MMD, a party that held this seat before the by-election coming out a very distant 5th. To gain a paltry 137 votes out of over 6,588 votes cast in the election is shameful and embarrassing to the party and its supporters.

Zambians must reflect on this party’s dwindling fortunes and even question some of the party’s victories when it was in power. Yet again Zambians have demonstrated through the people of Mangango that they have moved on from MMD and are not looking back. The MMD must smell the coffee and do a realistic introspection.

Some analysts have even urged the UPND not to consider any alliance with MMD as the party clearly has very little influence on the political landscape.

My view is that the survival of MMD is important for Zambia’s democracy and one can only hope that the party finds its feet sooner than later. The MMD has some useful political and governance experience that may help ensure the ruling party is kept on track through appropriate checks and balances.

Political parties also have what are described as their power bases. The practice of regional dominance is not unique to Zambia. The Mangango poll results yet again showed how strong Charles Milupi’s party the Action for Democracy and Development ADD is as a political factor in Western Province as the party raked in a lot of votes effectively splitting opposition votes. This made it impossible for the UPND the strongest contender to wrestle with the Patriotic Front.

In general, one of the biggest problems with Zambian politics is that it thrives on the ignorance and poverty of the vast majority of our people. A lot of Zambians remain illiterate and have little understanding of matters of national governance and thus fail to attach great premium to their vote.

There is a growing perception that voting is giving employment to the elite and has little to do with the improvement of the wellbeing of the electorate. With that in mind many voters especially in rural areas will give their votes to the most extravagant campaigner.

Vote buying is real, it may be practiced by both the party in power and even those in opposition. Reports are there of political party agents who are caught with bags of money dishing out cash to voters on the day of voting to influence their vote. Others buy voters cards directly.

There is also the general practice of making cash donations to institutions in the community such as the church which all play a role in influencing the vote. Political campaigns are characterised with material extravagance such as dishing out of clothes, chitenge wrappers and procurement of alcohol and food.

This culture of politics gives the electorate a sense that their political representatives should take direct responsibility for meeting their basic needs. This is a disaster caused by the politicians themselves.

That is why many struggle to return to their constituencies after they have won because the expectations of the communities are very high and tend to take a toll on their personal financial resources. Most voters are not educated on the role of MPs.

Editor's note :  This is a guest post from Bruce Chooma, a Lusaka based journalist and human rights activist, on the implications of the Mangango bye-election win by the Patriotic Front. You can read more of his writings on his blog

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