Introduction excerpt: Party Politics and Populism in Zambia by Sishuwa Sishuwa

On 23 September 2011, Michael Sata, leader of the opposition Patriotic Front (PF) party, was inaugurated as the fifth elected President of Zambia since independence from Britain in 1964. This followed his victory against incumbent Rupiah Banda of the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD). After a decade in opposition, and at the fourth attempt, Sata, 74, overcame strong competition from Banda, 75, and nine other opposition presidential contenders. He obtained 42 per cent of the vote, ahead of the sitting president, who polled 35.6 per cent. In the early hours of the same day, soon after being declared winner, Sata addressed the media: ‘How do I receive this victory? Well, this is the beginning of a long journey.’ In fact, it was the exact opposite. At the formation of the PF ten years earlier, Sata had indicated a single-minded focus on becoming President of Zambia, a focus that could be traced back to his days in the grassroots structures of the United National Independence Party (UNIP) in the early 1960s. ‘I am coming from grassroots politics to rule’, he said in October 2001. ‘I will retire from politics after being President [of Zambia] in State House.’  In this sense, his generally unexpected victory in the 2011 election was not the beginning of a long journey, but the end of one.

This book explores that historical journey, which began before the achievement of independence and therefore cuts across many supposed divides in Zambian political history, such as the colonial, post-colonial, one-party state, and multi-party eras. In this way, the book addresses a major gap in contemporary academic accounts of Zambian history, which tends to get segmented into different periods and to downplay the importance of individual leaders in the broader processes of political change. It demonstrates that the successful process of political mobilisation and the history of individual leadership that led Sata to victory in the 2011 election had deep roots. The leadership that he provided, the grievances that he articulated and played on, the policy appeals around which he rallied support and the language with which he expressed those appeals, the constituencies he targeted and mobilised, and the nature and style of his political strategy, all had their origins in much earlier phases of Zambian history, starting from the late-colonial period. This is not to say that the situation in the early 2000s had reverted to that of the late 1950s and early 1960s, but does indicate that these themes are consistent and continuous from the late-colonial period (1945–1964) through the years of one-party rule (1973–1991) and into the era of multi-party democracy (since 1991), and that these continuities can profitably be understood through a critical political biography of one individual whose experiences cut across these apparent divides. In exploring the broad continuities between these different periods through the case study of Sata, this book departs from those studies that have tended to identify and examine Zambia’s political history through several supposed turning points and disruptions, or the institutions that have come and gone with them.

A central theme of the book is the evolution of party politics and political change in Zambia and the effectiveness of populism as a strategy of mobilising support across different periods and party systems. Existing scholarship on party politics – be it from the late-colonial to the post-colonial period, or from the one-party era to multi-party democracy – has focused largely on ethnicity, which has taken attention away from the fact that most ethnic politics has had, as I show in this book, a populist component.3 Populism as a subject has boomed exponentially over the last decade in response to the emergence of purportedly anti-establishment political actors and movements on both the right and left of the political divide. The rise of Donald Trump in the United States and the meteoric emergence of populist leaders in Europe, in the mould of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and France’s ultra nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen, have brought the study of populism to the centre of academic debates. Although a shared definition of populism remains elusive, the concept has been used to describe a political language or style, a means of achieving electoral success, an ideology, and/or a tool of protest in unequal societies.

Sishuwa Sishuwa

May 2024
James Currey
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SISHUWA SISHUWA is a Senior Lecturer in History at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.