March 18, 2002

Support for Lewy Mwanawasa increases

He was widely decried as an incompetent impostor and a hostile public voted overwhelmingly against him in a controversial election last December. Three months on, however, the detractors are lining up to curry favour with President Levy Mwanawasa. His unlikely new allies include Christon Tembo, the head of the opposition Forum for Democracy and Development (FDD), who had refused to accept the result of the presidential poll and filed an electoral petition challenging Mwanawasa's legitimacy. Last weekend, Tembo led senior FDD members for bridge-building talks with Mwanawasa to end the protracted spat over the polls. According to party insiders, the FDD leader has now agreed to recognise the Mwanawasa administration and to work with it. "Although the FDD has petitioned the election results, the FDD recognises that there is a legitimate government which should continue to be supported until the courts rule otherwise. Every Zambian, including political players, should support the government of Mwanawasa," FDD spokesman Fisho Mwale told reporters after the meeting.

Two other parties that initially refused to recognise the new government - Anderson Mazoka's United Party for National Development (UPND) and Godfrey Miyanda's Heritage Party - have also given it grudging endorsement, as have several influential civic society organisations which initially rejected the election results as flawed.

Political observers attribute the president's growing popularity to a number of bold moves he has taken to curb corruption and alleviate widespread poverty - issues close to the hearts of most Zambians. Opposition parliamentarian Emmanuel Hachipuka told IRIN that the opposition, which initially planned to frustrate the new government's programmes, found it difficult to oppose the new president because his agenda appeared to coincide with theirs. "Our guiding factor is our manifesto. Anyone who can deliver to the same level that our manifesto suggests will have our support, and that is why we would like to see Mwanawasa succeeding," Hachipuka said.

Mwanawasa has demonstrated since his inauguration two months ago that he intends to pay more than lip service to his pre-election campaign promises on corruption and poverty alleviation. Only weeks after he assumed office, he dismantled two of his predecessors key projects - the Presidential Housing Initiative, and the Food Reserve Agency - which were purportedly set up to empower poor Zambians but were widely seen as meant to enrich the president and his close associates. He also freed the law enforcement agencies, which were restrained by political interference during the Frederick Chiluba years. Since then, a number of influential political figures previously seen as untouchable have come under the uncomfortable scrutiny of the law. The Anti-Corruption Commission recently disclosed that it was investigating Richard Sakala, a key Chiluba aide, for corruption. Another Chiluba aide, Gibson Zimba, has meanwhile, been charged with murder. Mwanawasa, who has also put an end to a culture under which the ruling party was funded by the state, has made it clear that he will not condone corruption. "Corruption is a crime against the nation and humanity for which punishment should be severe. In an effort for a corruption-free Zambia, there shall be no sacred cows," Mwanawasa said when he launched the National Movement Against Corruption, a Lusaka-based non-governmental organisation.

Political analysts also say that Mwanawasa's rising popularity is also partly a response to a series of sometimes controversial policy reversals he has made to combat poverty. Among other things, he has reintroduced free education and certain subsidies for agricultural production - moves that some western donors, on which the country depends for around half of its budget - frown upon. An estimated 80 percent of Zambia's 10.3 million people live below the poverty line. Mwanawasa has also indicated that his government will review other aspects of a donor-tailored structural adjustment programme embarked on by the reformist Chiluba government in 1992, including a far-reaching privatisation programme.

According to UPND parliamentarian Douglas Syakalima, such reforms would win Mwanawasa, who got under 30 percent of the vote in the December poll, much needed popular support as he battles to quell a growing revolt within his ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD). "I believe the best thing a government can do for the people is to give them quality education and health care," said Syakalima. "A viable agricultural sector and a good road network are also very important. When a government provides these things, it will be well appreciated". The ruling party is divided into two camps, one loyal to Mwanawasa and the other to his predecessor, Chiluba, who remains president of the party. The split in the party became glaringly apparent early this month when the party suspended presidential aide Mbita Chitala for unstated reasons. Mwanawasa responded by sacking the party's national secretary, Vernon Mwaanga, from his cabinet. (IRIN)

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