Last January, Zambian President Edgar Lungu of the Patriotic Front (PF) party was elected to replace late President Michael Sata by a small margin of 28,000 votes over his opponent, United Party for National Development (UPND) leader Hakainde Hichilema. With only 32 percent of registered voters casting ballots for either candidate, and given that the victor will only hold office for 20 months, the election could be seen as insignificant. In fact, it signifies a change in party politics ahead of what may well be uncertain times for Zambia. The nation is navigating the complexities of a copper mining boom, upcoming loan repayments, and crumbling infrastructure. In that context, January’s by-election represented a dramatic repositioning of party politics and factional interests that could undermine progress, inhibit growth, and imperil Zambia’s otherwise promising long-term economic outlook.
The story begins with Sata’s 2011 victory, which marked a radical break from Zambia’s neoliberal, multi-party era that had followed the demise of former leader Kenneth Kaunda’s socialist regime in 1991. Sata’s Patriotic Front (PF) party curbed the uncontested rule of foreign capital in the mining sector, condemned government corruption, raised the minimum wage in certain sectors, increased civil servants’ salaries, and intervened directly in labor disputes with Chinese mining companies. Zambia’s issuance of ten-year government bonds in 2012 and 2014 provided the nation with a $1.75 billion cash influx in the midst of rapid expansion of the private sector driven by the copper boom—Zambia averaged nearly 8% of GDP growth a year in the 2004–13 decade. Sata channelled Zambia’s newfound fortune into infrastructure projects, including the rehabilitation and construction of thousands of miles of roads, rural electrification projects, and the construction of new health clinics and housing for civil servants. There were major downsides to Sata’s fiscal policy, however: The government never planned for public debt repayments. In addition, there were widespread corruption allegations and accusations that the PF had recklessly expanded the civil service with family members and people from Sata’
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