Last Tuesday, the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) scooped the Chilanga parliamentary by-election, defeating three other opposition parties: the United Party for National Development (UPND), National Restoration Party (NAREP) and United Prosperous and Peaceful Zambia (UPPZ). Previously held by the UPND’s Keith Mukata, the Chilanga seat fell vacant after the Lusaka High Court convicted Mukata for the murder of Namakambwa Kalila Kwenda, a security guard who was shot dead in unclear circumstances at Mukata’s law firm last year. PF candidate Maria Langa polled 7,226 votes and was followed by the UPND’s Charmaine Mehl Musonda who obtained 6,410 ballots. UPPZ’s Francis Kope was third with 204 votes while NAREP’s Charlie Mazabuka earned his position at the bottom with 92 votes. The low voter turnout that characterised the Chilanga poll is typical of by-elections – of the constituency’s 49,614 registered voters, only 14,121 (representing 28.46 per cent) turned up to cast their vote – but the violence that reportedly marred the campaign may also have dissuaded many to stay away.

The ruling party has since seized upon this favourable outcome as evidence of the PF’s electoral ascendance and the UPND’s gradual decline. PF Media Director Sunday Chanda argued that the result of the Chilanga poll indicates that the main opposition ‘is losing ground everyday and with every election. UPND bases and members are fatigued with the leadership of Hakainde Hichilema [in contrast to] President Edgar Lungu [who] is gaining popularity with every single election’. For its part, the UPND attributed its defeat to the ‘warfare-like violence’ that took place on polling day, which, according to party Secretary General Stephen Katuka, prevented many of its supporters from voting. Other commentators have argued that the UPND gifted the seat to the PF because of the opposition party’s adoption of a morally compromised candidate. Musonda, who was in the company of Mukata at the time when the shooting of Kalila Kwenda occurred, was arrested alongside the then Chilanga lawmaker, with whom she had an affair, but was ultimately acquitted by the High Court. Traditional UPND supporters, critics argue, may have either stayed away from voting or switched to the PF in protest against the adoption of a candidate who was fresh from a murder charge and had an affair with a married man.

Neither of these perspectives tells us the full story. While the PF’s effective campaign strategy in Chilanga should be commended, any attempts to draw broader conclusions from the result would be misleading not least because the area is a multiethnic peri-urban constituency whose voting patterns can neither be transferred nor generalised to the rest of Lusaka or indeed the country. It is equally an exercise in self-deception to consider the outcome of the Chilanga poll as evidence of UPND members’ dissatisfaction with Hichilema’s leadership of the party. Similarly, attempts by the UPND to explain its defeat in Chilanga as a result of violence amount to self-deceit and overlook the possibility that many of those disfranchised may have been PF supporters since, according to media reports, UPND cadres also engaged in violent conduct and even brandished guns.

Finally, those suggesting that the UPND may have lost the seat because of the choice of its candidate, a supposedly morally repulsive one, are undermining the effectiveness of the PF campaign strategy, ignoring the fact that Musonda was the grassroots’ preferred candidate during the primary poll and are arguably projecting their own notions of moral integrity onto Chilanga voters. Moral considerations have never weighed heavily on the electoral scale of concerns of many Zambian voters and there is no evidence that the electorate in Chilanga is an exception to this general norm. Our recent political history is awash with examples of individuals with dilapidated moral infrastructure who ascended to elective public office at various levels. In fact, if morality was an important factor in our electoral politics, Rupiah Banda, Michael Sata and Lungu would never have come anywhere near State House. It is also worth noting that the top four of the nine candidates that Musonda, a Bemba, defeated with wide margins in the primary, were all Tongas. Had the UPND central leadership imposed any of them on Chilanga, critics may have seized on this move as further evidence of the party’s commitment to Tonga ethnic particularism. Such a move could have also alienated the grassroots. What this picture demonstrates is the need to seek other explanations for the Chilanga result beyond the existing narratives.

In my view, broadly speaking, the outcome of the Chilanga parliamentary by-election should be understood as a consequence of two factors.

First, Chilanga, historically speaking, is a swing constituency that was not a stronghold for any of the competing parties and where voters have demonstrated particular affinity to individuals rather than political parties. Although many, including some in the UPND, have hitherto presented Chilanga as a stronghold for the main opposition party, history tells us otherwise, at least at parliamentary level, showing that for a long time the constituency was a traditional power base for the former ruling party, the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD). In the 2001 general elections, Chilanga was won by the UPND’s Cosmas Moono, who was defeated by the MMD’s Ng’andu Magande five years later. Following Magande’s expulsion from the then ruling party, the UPND won the seat in the subsequent by-election in October 2010 after Moono, who was fronted as a PF-UPND pact candidate, closely defeated the MMD contender, Keith Mukata. At the 2011 general elections, the MMD recaptured the seat through Mukata who trounced the UPND’s Moono.

In the run-up to the 2016 general elections, Mukata, then serving as Deputy Minister of Justice in Lungu’s PF administration, defected to the UPND, on whose ticket he later retained the seat until his conviction. This abbreviated electoral history of Chilanga constituency demonstrates two features: that Chilanga was largely an MMD stronghold between 2006 and 2016 and that the party’s electoral appeal in the area was closely tied to the popularity of Mukata. Contrary to the UPND’s repeated claims that Chilanga was its stronghold, the opposition party probably won the seat in 2016 on the strength of Mukata’s individual attributes and political clout. Of particular importance is that the PF candidates, in all the previous parliamentary elections held in Chilanga since 2006, consistently came a close third or second even when the party was still in opposition. A victory for the PF this time was therefore as likely as a win for the UPND, especially since both parties adopted candidates who could not be differentiated on gender and were popular with grassroots supporters. Langa, a low-profile figure whom Chilanga residents affectionately call ‘Amama’, is a well-established community entrepreneur who has greatly promoted the cause of women in the area. What made the decisive difference is not the character or individual qualities of either candidate but a factor that I discuss next.

Second, the PF’s victory in Chilanga was secured by the advantages of incumbency. Nearly all Cabinet ministers and several PF MPs from Lusaka and elsewhere camped in Chilanga to campaign for Langa. Vast amounts of state resources were poured into the area and deployed for partisan use. Some voters were reportedly bribed with cash and other luxurious goods to vote for the PF candidate – a strategy that has proved effective in securing the support of impoverished electors, especially those deprived of the knowledge of ‘Don’t Kubeba’. (A similar strategy of extensive vote buying was successfully deployed by the PF in the Lubansenshi parliamentary by-election in September 2015.) In addition, a number of previously unattended roads were suddenly either tarred or paved. One elderly Chilanga resident who voted for NAREP’s candidate told me that he hoped ‘there would be another by-election in the constituency soon so that the remaining roads can also be tarred’. To crown it all, President Lungu, campaigning in the area a few days before polling day, warned Chilanga residents that they will not receive development or tangible benefits from the State if they voted for the opposition, especially the UPND. (In a country with a functioning judiciary, such careless utterances by the President provide sufficient basis for invalidating the results of the Chilanga poll if petitioned. The problem is that even if the High Court disposes of the case within 90 days, as per the law, the Constitutional Court may take up to 2021 to conclude a possible appeal arising from the ruling of the lower court, as ably demonstrated by its snail-paced movement in the now ancient appeal cases of Munali and Lusaka Central constituencies.) Outspent and unable to match the PF’s bottomless financial muscle, the opposition tumbled.

I congratulate the PF for winning Chilanga and wish the newly elected MP all the best as she now turns her attention to fulfilling the promises that she made to voters such as the launch of a Disney World theme park or resort. I also commend the UPND for sticking to or respecting the choice of the grassroots, a move that represents a victory for internal party democracy and the voice of the rank and file.

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