Zambia’s Socialist Party emerges as an alternative in upcoming presidential elections 

Founded in 2018 under the leadership of its current presidential candidate Fred M’membe, the Socialist Party has emerged as a third force in Zambia, providing voters with an alternative to the ruling Patriotic Front and the opposition United Party for National Development

August 09, 2021 by Pavan Kulkarni
Rally of the Socialist Party of Zambia in January 2020. Photo: Socialist Party of Zambia

Political violence in Zambia ahead of the presidential election on August 12 is continuing amidst concerns of a looming communications blackout as armed forces patrol many affected regions. Among the latest victims is Andrew Kapasa Kalulu, a candidate from the Socialist Party (SP) who is set to contest from the Shiwan’gandu parliamentary constituency.

While campaigning in the Mwiche and Ichingo ward on Friday, August 6, Kalulu was physically attacked by cadres of the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) who were accompanying PF’s candidate Stephen Kampyongo. Kalulu was campaigning on the date and time allocated to him by the Election Commission Of Zambia (ECZ). Though rendered unconscious after the assault, Kalulu recovered quickly and is back on the ground to continue with the campaign.

“Kampyongo disregarded the campaign timetable set by ECZ and entered the same ward to conduct meetings on a day designated to our candidate,” Cosmas Musumali, SP’s general secretary and first vice-president, wrote in a complaint to the ECZ chairman. “In every election Kampyongo has participated in since PF came into power, there has been violence against his opponents,” Musumali added.

On August 2, in a move widely regarded by the opposition as an attempt to intimidate voters, president Edgar Lungu deployed the army, airforce and the national service. This was ostensibly to check political violence as clashes increased between cadres of the ruling PF and the mainstream opposition, United Party for National Development (UPND) led by Hakainde Hichelema. 

After five failed runs for the presidency, Hichelema is now widely reported to be the top contender against Lungu. Lungu came into office in early 2015 after winning a by-election following the death of the then president. He subsequently won the election in 2016. 

Lungu’s decision to contest for the third time in the upcoming election was seen by many as a breach of the presidential term limit, but was permitted by the constitutional court on the grounds that he had not served a full term after the 2015 by-election. 

During his rule, “what we have seen in Zambia, especially in the past five years, is an increasingly brutal crackdown on human rights, characterized by brazen attacks on any form of dissent,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa. 

“Opposition leaders, journalists, media houses and activists have all been targeted, and speaking out against allegations of government corruption or abuse has become more dangerous,” Muchena said.

On the economic front, the neoliberal reluctance to collect a fair share of tax from the multinational mining companies extracting minerals from Africa’s second-largest copper producer has continued. 

Economic deprivations imposed by Lungu’s government

Only months after coming to power, Lungu’s cabinet removed the corporate tax on mining companies and increased the royalty paid to them – from 6% to 20% in case of open pit mines, and 6% to 8% in case of underground mines. 

To compensate for this self-incurred loss for the state, Lungu’s administration sharply reduced social sector spending from 35.3% of the budget in 2015 to 26.1% in 2020. Expenditure on education in the same period was reduced from 20.2% of the budget to 12.4%, and on healthcare from 9.6% to 8.8%. Further decline in expenditure in these sectors has been projected for this year.  

At the time Lungu came to power, 47.8% of Zambia’s population was already undernourished according to the Food and Agricultural Organization, up from about 33% in the early 1990s when the neoliberal reforms were introduced. The increasingly hungry population was forced to further tighten the belt after expenditure on agriculture was reduced to almost a third – from 10.2% of the budget in 2016 to 3.7% by 2020, according to data from the finance ministry’s budget speeches compiled by the SP.

According to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification’s analysis for July 2020 – March 2021, 1.42 million people, amounting to 22% of the population, are facing acute levels of food insecurity in the country. 190,000 of them are on the verge of famine.  

Despite these deprivations imposed on the population to reduce expenditure, the giveaways for the corporations were so huge that the state was forced to run massive deficits. Zambia’s debt rose from 36% in 2014 to 85% by 2019. 

This situation was made further untenable when the pandemic broke out in 2020, imposing a requirement of considerably higher expenditure. Zambia’s debt has increased to 118% of the GDP. As of last year, the roughly $11.5 billion debt was composed of an estimated $3.5 billion in bilateral borrowings, $2.1 billion of multilateral debt, $2.9 billion of borrowings from external lenders, and another $3 billion in eurobonds. 

In October last year, after failing to pay $42.5 million as interest on eurobonds, Zambia became the first country to default during the pandemic. In January 2021, Zambia failed to make another payment on eurobonds of $56.1 million, following which, the government started negotiations with the IMF for a loan restructuring under a G20 initiative.

Analysts had pointed out quite early in the negotiations that the IMF is unlikely to settle a deal until the election results are out. 

Hichelema competes with Lungu to woo the IMF

UPND’s Hichelema – who has been widely promoted by the corporate media and think tanks including England’s Chatham House – has in effect argued that he should be voted into power because the IMF would give a government led by him a better deal. This is because he would be more ruthless than Lungu in imposing austerity measures on the population.

As his first step in case of victory in this election, Hichelema would impose “a moratorium on borrowing. Secondly, we will stop access to credit facilities for consumption.” Hichelema made these claims in an interview conducted at a time when Zambia’s population, amongst the most food insecure in the world, is reeling under the compounded distress of the pandemic.   

On the other hand, far from talking of fair taxation on mining companies, Hichilema has consistently advocated more pro-corporate reforms. It is worth noting that he is the former CEO of Coopers and Lybrand and Grant Thornton. Previously, his co-owned consultancy firms have provided financial advice to entities including the mining companies.  

Under the circumstances, the 7.23 million registered voters in Zambia, which has a total population of over 18.9 million people, have no real option to choose between the PF and the UPND when it comes to economic policies affecting their everyday lives. 

The socialist alternative

In this vacuum of policy alternatives, the SP – founded in 2018 under the leadership of its current presidential candidate Fred M’membe – has emerged as a third force. M’membe is a veteran journalist whose newspaper was shut down by the Lungu government in 2016.

SP’s candidates, nearly half of whom are women, are contesting in 143 of the 156 constituencies on a socialist platform, promising to rein in tax evasion by the mining companies, and to use the revenue thus gained to expand healthcare, education, housing, and peasant agriculture.

Read more: “We are telling people, vote for yourselves!”: Rehoboth Kafwabulula of Socialist Party of Zambia

The party’s election manifesto promises a 10-year People’s Infrastructure Development Program (PIDP), for which the socialist government, if formed, has committed to allot $20 billion, while only $1 billion will be sourced externally.       

When asked how the $20 billion will be raised internally amidst the financial crisis Zambia is undergoing, SP secretary general Cosmas Musumali told Peoples Dispatch that phased over 10 years, the sum required to be allocated per year is $2 billion, which amounts to about 10% of the annual budget.

“A tenth of the budget is reasonable. It can be funded from the domestic resources raised annually,” he said. “Economic theory tells us that you have to push 20-30% of what you earn into capital formation.”

Explaining why the other one billion is to be sourced from external funding, Musumali said that “there is the issue of research, technology and certain aspects of know-how that may need to come from outside. Some of the best arrangements for financing these could be (via).. credit or borrowing.”

Elaborating on the imperative of PIDP, he said that “this program is critical in ensuring that we set up an infrastructure base.. that is needed to develop peasant agriculture, the provision of health services and quality education to the masses of our people. Without such infrastructure.. (these needs) will not be met.”

When asked about SP’s approach to the negotiations with the IMF, which are expected to conclude if the PF or UPND win, Musumali, an economist by training, said, “Our stand on the IMF issue is quite categorical – this is not the solution. The solution is more internal.”

Musumali noted that the “current government has over-borrowed, and has wasted resources.” The IMF’s terms and conditions on any package it may offer will impose more austerity on the poor even though Zambia’s “macroeconomic imbalance is to a large extent caused by an elite that has squandered billions of public money,” he said. 

Read more: Socialist Party of Zambia presidential candidate Dr. Fred M’membe calls for a clear and radical socialist program

“There has to be a redirection to use the money this country generates in a much more frugal way to.. (finance) the social sector and the productive sectors like peasant agriculture which promises more.. for millions, not just for the few.”

“Do we need external funding? Definitely,” he asserted. “But there are different sources for generating that. There are different bilateral and multilateral agreements.. outside the control of the IMF that can be tapped upon. But again, these are only complementary to the domestic fiscal consolidation policy.”