On 21 October 2021, Zambia’s main opposition Patriotic Front (PF) scooped the Kaumbwe parliamentary election in Petauke district, Eastern Province, defeating four other political parties – namely, the governing United Party for National Development (UPND), the Socialist Party (SP), the Democratic Party (DP) and the Party for National Unity and Progress (PNUP) – and two independent candidates. The Kaumbwe poll was held now, separately from the general election on 12 August, because of the untimely death of then UPND candidate Borniface Khondowe in July.

PF candidate Aaron Mwanza polled 6, 633 votes and was followed by the UPND’s Esnart Sakala who obtained 3, 117 ballots. The SP’s Masauso Daka was third with 1, 835 votes, way ahead of the DP’s Wilbase Tembo who ended fourth with 517. Next were the two independent contestants – namely Listed Tembo with 446 votes and Yunike Mwale who received 191. The PNUP’s Charles Nyanoka earned his position at the bottom with 120 votes. The relatively low voter turnout that characterised the Kaumbwe poll is typical of elections held after a general one – of the constituency’s 30, 509 registered voters, only 13, 189 (representing 43.2 per cent) turned up to cast their vote – but the violence that reportedly marred the campaign may also have dissuaded some to stay away.

How should we interpret the results of the Kaumbwe election? Do they reflect the resurrection of the PF or the beginning of the decline in electoral support for the UPND? Or does the outcome suggest the emergence of the Socialist Party as an alternative to the two leading political parties? Meaningful responses to these and other questions that can tell us much about the state of Zambia’s political parties would require a consistent pattern of results, ideally at the same level. The performance of parties in a single election, only two months after the last general election, is hardly an indicator of the prevailing national public mood. Any analysis of the Kaumbwe election results that attempts to draw larger conclusions should therefore be treated with caution. For now, what is needed is a brief analysis that explains the success of the former ruling party in the constituency. In my view, there are four main reasons.

The first point is that the PF’s campaign message of ethnic marginalisation proved effective or found fertile ground in Kaumbwe. Only two people in President Hakainde Hichilema’s 28-member Cabinet are from Eastern, a province that had nine ministers under the 32-member cabinet of former president Edgar Lungu. It does not help that most of the recently dismissed Permanent Secretaries are also from Eastern Province – a terrible indictment on Lungu who packed his government with mainly Easterners and Bemba speakers from Muchinga, Luapula and Northern provinces. During the campaign, PF leaders such as Raphael Nakacinda, Given Lubinda and Chishimba Kambwili combined with local ethnic big wigs to exploit this context to their advantage, (falsely) presenting the UPNDas an ethnic-regional party that is out to reduce the number of Easterners in key positions in government. Their rhetoric, occasionally bordering on the offence of tribal and hate speech, may have played a role in swaying a significant number of voters towards supporting the PF. Ethnic politics (still) works in Zambia and the earlier the UPND understand this point and formulate effective corrective strategies, the better for their future electoral prospects – especially in certain areas of Muchinga, Luapula and Eastern provinces.

The second factor that explains why the PF secured the Kaumbwe parliamentary seat is that the constituency has been a stronghold of the former ruling party for some time now. In the 2016 election, for instance, Kaumbwe was comfortably won by Listed Tembo who had stood on the PF ticket. The then UPND parliamentary candidate finished a distant third. At presidential level, then President Lungu defeated Hichilema in Kaumbwe with a landside, polling 9, 169 votes against the UPND leader’s 1, 084. In the more recent August election, Lungu won 10, 728 votes against Hichilema’s 3, 773. Having been in power for less than two months, the UPND is yet to do anything tangible for the constituency to win over much of the sceptical electorate or shift their loyalties from the PF. The late delivery of inputs to farmers and the slow pace at which the Food Reserve Agency is purchasing their produce may have contributed to the UPND’s loss.

The third factor is that the UPND had a poor or ineffective campaign strategy in Kaumbwe built around party chairperson for elections Gary Nkombo, a non-Easterner, and opportunistic PF members such as Peter Daka and Moses Mawere. The inclusion of Daka and Mawere in the UPND campaign team – perhaps intended to counter the ethnic rhetoric spread by the PF – did not sit well with the party’s local leaders and even some of the rank and file. Until a few days before the election, key ‘ethnic big men’ from the Eastern Province such as Levy Ngoma and Andrew Banda were not fronted to spearhead the campaign. The capacity of local party campaigners to mount an effective campaign was also undermined by the UPND’s reported reluctance to put more resources – financial and material – into the election. Added to this point is the fact that Hichilema did not spend much time in the constituency, making a cameo campaign appearance that seemed obligatory rather than deliberate. Combined, this inept political strategy greatly aided the PF’s campaign and helped them win Kaumbwe.

The final factor is that the personalities or choice of candidate that the parties adopted in Kaumbwe constituency also mattered. The PF did a good job on this score, identifying an individual who commanded greater grassroots support and had established a lot of community projects in the area. After working in China for much of the last 15 years, the Kaumbwe-born Mwanza returned home last year and endeared himself to many by rehabilitating schools and sinking boreholes in nearly all the constituency’s wards in preparation for this election. While the UPND’s decision to adopt a female candidate is commendable, Sakala is hardly known in Kaumbwe and has little affinity with the place. The relatively good performance of the Socialist Party contender should also be seen in context: it is the result of adopting a candidate with strong roots in the area, one who attempted to tailor his campaign message to specific policy appeals that are salient to the aspirations or concerns of the local people.