Learning from King Cobra: Sata, Hichilema and the politics of electoral defeat
By E. Munshya, LLM, MBA, MDIV.
There is no better way to win an election than to win an election. For those who win elections, they win elections by winning elections. Those who want to win an election must win an election by winning an election and not winning a court case. In 2006, Michael Chilufya Sata of the Patriotic Front lost that year’s presidential election very terribly. He lost to President Mwanawasa who commanded a comfortable lead all over Zambia except for the urban areas and Bemba-speaking areas. Sata whined a little bit but went to work. In 2008, he lost again. This time to Rupiah Banda. Sata fumed pouncing all over Mulungushi Conference Centre and the Supreme Court grounds. But for some reason, he held himself back and took control of the narrative. He realized his strengths and weaknesses. He saw his losses and found an opportunity. He went to work. That is the behaviour of a winner.
In 2008, Sata looked at the electoral map. The urban areas of Lusaka and Copperbelt were in his bag, Bemba areas of Northern and Luapula were also in his grasp, but to win the presidency he needed to turn around a non-Bemba area, so he went for a Barotse offensive. The time for the King Cobra to charm the Barotse had come. Right in the heartland of Barotseland, Sata took a message that the Barotse wanted to hear – a message that would honour some aspects of the Barotseland Agreement of 1964. From 2008 to 2011, Sata worked on his message. Taking advantage of Rupiah’s Barotse lapses, he collaborated with Inonge Wina and Mubukwanu. And boom! In 2011, Barotseland had given Sata the votes he needed to beat Rupiah. Sata’s Barotse votes were very significant in that he did not just do “well” or do “better” he actually won big and got seats right in the Barotse heartland. That is how you win. You learn from your weaknesses, tweak your message, and go for an electoral offensive.
Come 2016, Hakainde Hichilema has an opportunity to turn his loss into something meaningful. Mr. Hichilema insists that he has won the election, but he has not won anywhere else apart from his strongholds of Southern, Western and Northwestern Provinces. He has no Member of Parliament in Bemba areas, no MPs in the East, and certainly no MP in urban Copperbelt or urban Lusaka. Without MPs in these areas, Mr. Hichilema has failed to replicate the Sata strategy of turning a hostile constituency into a friendly electorate. For Mr. Hakainde to win he did not need to just do well in Bemba and urban areas, he needed to have one or two MPs in those areas. Having MPs does not necessarily correlate with winning the presidential vote, but it is very significant in telling us the trends of where the presidency is leaning. It is nearly impossible for a candidate to win the presidential election without some corresponding increase in the number of Members of Parliament. You cannot win the presidency in Zambia without the good number of MPs being on your side, even if the presidential election is a separate election from that of MP.
While it is true that Lungu’s incumbency may have disadvantaged the opposition, we have a long history in this country where the opposition has beaten the incumbent – in both 1991 and 2011. It is doable. Blaming Lungu’s incumbency is not good strategically, Mr. Hichilema must take some responsibility and do better next time around. He is still young. He does have an opportunity to turn things around and if he stayed on, he could scoop 2021.
Mr. Hichilema’s continued overconfidence is a put-off. I doubt if anyone stole his votes. I will leave that up to the determination of the venerable Constitutional Court. However, to the extent that we provide for the ruling of the Constitutional Court on this matter, we can safely speculate that Mr. Hichilema lost because Mr. Hichilema lost. No one stole his votes. The urban areas have not yet turned away from the Michael Sata “Don’t kubeba” coalition. That coalition is still intact. Consequently, insulting the Michael Sata urban coalition is not a good strategy for the UPND. The “dununa reverse – don’t kubeba” urban coalition needs to be courted not insulted. All these slights springing up in the media about how poor urbanites will continue living in poverty due to their continued support of the PF and Lungu exposes something that the UPND might need to understand about urban politics. Lungu won because he has won hearts of the suffering poor – the very suffering Zambians in our compounds. Unless the UPND figures out why the urban poor are still voting overwhelmingly for Lungu, their relevance will soon fade. The UPND must stop insulting and shaming urban areas and get to work.
Mr. Hichilema has an opportunity. For a start, he needs to go to both Luapula and Northern and thank this constituency. He quickly needs to capitalize on the election and cement the officials and structures in these areas, as he will need them for 2021. The more time he spends in Lusaka at his mansion and at court, the more time he loses on cementing the support he needs for 2021. For now, unfortunately, the PF has already seized on the opportunity to tribalize Mr. Hichilema’s 500,000 vote tsunami from Tonga areas. He needs to be in charge of the narrative, but the more time he spends in Lusaka the less likely he is to recast the tsunami. If the tsunami is recast and told by the PF, UPND will lose any hope of getting Luapula and Northern in 2021. The PF could take the tsunami numbers and try to convince Bemba voters that HH tried to capitalize on the Tonga tribal vote (this is of course not true, but Zambian politics is not about the truth, but perceptions). Mr. Hichilema stands a good chance, and I hope he will seize the opportunity.