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  • Zambia Starts Over
  • Michael Bratton (bio)

After 17 years of single-party rule, Zambia returned to multiparty competition in late 1991. In presidential and parliamentary balloting on October 31, Zambian voters took advantage of the unfamiliar opportunity of choosing among candidates from two major and three minor political parties to hand a sweeping victory to an opposition grouping called the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD). Its leader, trade unionist Frederick Chiluba, became president with a stunning 76 percent of the vote, while MMD candidates captured 125 out of 150 National Assembly seats. The 27-year reign of President Kenneth Kaunda, the country's founding father, and his United National Independence Party (UNIP) was at an end. As important as the election result itself was the transition from one type of political regime to another. The legal and political hegemony of a single ruling party was, at least for the moment, replaced by a plurality of competing political ideas and institutions.

Zambia is the first English-speaking country in Africa to complete such a transition peacefully, in large part due to President Kaunda's genuine, albeit reluctant, acceptance of the demands made by a united opposition front. Other recent democratic experiments in Africa have had ripple effects in their immediate geographic neighborhoods, for example, in French-speaking West Africa (Côte d'Ivoire, Gabon, Benin) or among the Portuguese-speaking island nations of Cape Verde and São Tomé & Príncipe. Zambia is important because it provides a model of political reform that will resonate among ruling elites and popular movements in capitals as far-flung as Nairobi, Kinshasa, and Pretoria. [End Page 81]

The Zambian case also raises general questions about the intriguing dynamics of transitions away from authoritarian rule. Precisely how are one-party regimes disassembled and replaced by more open, competitive ones? Which ideological and institutional innovations mark the route of political liberalization? What political tensions arise as plural affiliations and competitive elections are reintroduced? How stable are the new regimes?

The process of political transition is best seen as a struggle between incumbent and opposition political interests over both the rules of the political game and the resources with which it is played. This struggle is starkly revealed during "transitional elections," which restore party competition after a long interval of official party-state monopoly.1 Under these circumstances, the ruling party employs all its strength to tilt the rules of political competition in its own favor. In Zambia, UNIP's best efforts to hang on to power were not enough to overcome its loss of legitimacy in the face of a concerted popular and legal challenge from the opposition. The transition unfolded rapidly, with only two years separating the first calls for multiparty politics in December 1989 and the inauguration in December 1991, under a liberalized constitution, of the Third Republic of Zambia.

While the political transition was rapid, it remains fragile. In Zambia, newly independent political institutions and fledgling democratic values do not yet form a permanent buffer against abuse by executive authorities. And without tangible economic development, citizens may once again come to blame their deprivation on the government of the day. Thus few conditions for the consolidation of democracy are yet in place.

The One-Party Regime

Until 1973, Zambia had a history of plural politics. The African nationalist movement in what was then called Northern Rhodesia split in 1958, with the faction that became UNIP pursuing a more progressive and militant line than the moderate and traditionalist African National Congress (ANC). The country's first African government, formed in 1962, was a coalition of UNIP and the ANC. Zambia won full independence in 1964 and Kaunda acceded to the presidency under a republican constitution that affirmed freedom of political expression and association.

Zambians became accustomed to the rough and tumble of electoral competition in the course of multiparty elections held in 1962, 1964, and 1968. Although all these elections took place after intense campaigns marred by wild charges and rumors, incidents of intimidation and overzealousness, and occasional factional violence, all parties respected the results. In the preindependence elections of 1964, UNIP secured [End Page 82] enough National Assembly seats to govern alone, without...


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