A Flash of Democracy – Elections in Zambia

By Jody Harris

More than one long-serving African government lost power this autumn. But while the eyes of the world were on the brutal end of the Gadhafi regime in Libya, an altogether more democratic transition was taking place in Zambia, as Rupiah Banda’s Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), in place for 20 years under 3 presidents, acknowledged its inferior share of the popular vote and gave way peacefully to the Patriotic Front (PF) under new President Michael Sata.

As the dust settles on the new government, and the rains begin with startlingly ferocious thunderstorms in this country reliant almost entirely on rain-fed agriculture, there is now an air of expectation for the future. The World Bank recently re-classified Zambia as a middle-income country, and increased wealth here is evidenced by burgeoning traffic and shiny new shopping malls in the cities- though life in the rural areas has changed little for a very long time.

Celebrations Following Sata's Election

Sata’s party was elected on two key economic promises: To raise taxes on the mineral mines that underpin the country’s wealth, to pay for much-needed infrastructure and public services; and the more elusive promise that there would be ‘more money in your pocket’, a phrase that made Zambian voters expectant and scornful in equal measure. In the first budget of the new government, presented last month to a lower house more than a little resembling the UK House of Commons, and transported in a battered red case mirroring that of the UK Chancellor but for the Zambian flag draped around its middle, the party managed- with a little fancy footwork- to come through on both of those promises.

Taxes on the mines (infamously low under previous governments, with mining profits said to have contributed to making Zambia one of the most unequal societies in Southern Africa today) were raised from 3 to 6% for copper and 5 to 6% for precious metals, allowing for gains in some social sectors; funding for the health sector increased by 45% in this budget and now receives 9.3% of national expenditure, heading towards the 15% promised by African governments under the Abuja Agreement in 2001.

And how did the new government put more money in the pockets of ordinary Zambians? By raising the PAYE tax threshold from 1 million to 2 million Kwacha per month, effective April 2012, making the first 400 US dollars of income tax-free and sending thousands of middle-class Zambians scrambling for their calculators to work out how much they would save. (That is, those within the formal tax system, which is a fraction of workers but a sizeable proportion of key voters.)

Smooth democratic transitions are rare in sub-Saharan Africa, with at least ten political leaders out of 49 countries in the region having been in office for more than 20 years, and Zambia can be proud that this election, while imperfect, passed off without violence. But with almost half of children in the country chronically malnourished to the point of stunted growth, and HIV and other communicable diseases vying with the new diseases of affluence to undermine development efforts, Sata’s government has a lot of work ahead of it, despite its democratic credentials.


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