JOHANNESBURG/LUSAKA. – Zambia’s ruling Patriotic Front party candidate in next week’s presidential vote has held out an olive branch to his opponents, promising to create a unity government if he wins what is expected to be a close race. The January 20 election has been called in the copper-rich southern African country to elect a successor to president Michael Sata, who died late last year of an undisclosed illness.
Defence and Justice Minister Edgar Lungu – who faces a tough battle against Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development – told AFP in an interview on Wednesday from Lusaka that he wanted to bring all sides into government.
“I want to form a government which will be very inclusive,” Lungu said, including former PF members, opposition politicians, and even those within the PF who “viciously” opposed his candidacy.
Since Sata’s death, the ruling party has been so wrecked by infighting that opposing camps had nominated rival candidates for the vote.
Lungu and Vice President Guy Scott – who took the helm in the interim to become Africa’s first white head of state since apartheid – belong to rival factions.
It was only a month before the poll, on December 20, that the feuding sides agreed to field Lungu as the sole candidate. The nation of 15 million people has enjoyed a peaceful constitutional transition since the end of one-party rule 24 years ago and is seen as one of the beacons of democracy in the region.
“I will invite some of my colleagues . . . we will be talking to those who left the party and those from other parties,” Lungu said.
“So if you are Zambian, if you are available, regardless of your origins, regardless of political affiliation, if I can use you to better the country, I will use you,” he said, echoing the country’s motto of “one Zambia, one nation”.
Political observers say Lungu, who turned 58 in November on the same day the country was burying Sata, may struggle to match the late leader’s popularity
Until Sata’s death, Lungu – who calls himself an “ordinary Zambian of humble beginnings” – was little known.
“Edgar Lungu doesn’t have charisma,” said Neo Simutanyi, director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue think-tank. “No one knew him. His performance in government was not outstanding.”
While the PF tensions could undermine his capacity to mount an aggressive campaign, Lungu will also be standing against a far better known opponent in the shape of Hichilema.
Already drawing huge crowds at his rallies, Hichilema is a three-time veteran of presidential races, although his previous campaigns never succeeded.
In the last election in 2011, Zambians voted along regional lines, with the PF drawing most of its 42 percent of the vote from the northern, eastern and Lusaka provinces.
But Lungu says he now wants the party and the country to move beyond the politics of ethnicity to a national identity.
“I want to advance programmes which will be national in character,” said Lungu.
During the PF’s time in office, “we have not secluded those who didn’t vote for us and we are treating every Zambian as a participant in the national cake”.
Whoever wins next week’s poll will be in office for less than two years as the country is due to hold a general election in 2016. – AFP.