The body of Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa who died last month in Paris, France from complication of a stroke will be lay to rest this Wednesday, September 3 in Lusaka. But already the contest for his successor within the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) is intensifying. The frontrunners are vice president and acting president Rupiah Banda and Finance and National Planning Minister Ng'andu Magande. First Lady Maureen Mwanawasa has added to the drama by endorsing Finance Minister Ng'ande to succeed her husband. She said her late husband had told her he would like for Ng'ande to succeed him after his second and final five-year term ends in 2011.
Supporters of Vice President Banda, the other aspiring successor to President Mwanawasa dismissed the first lady's claims as false. So far, 16 aspiring candidates have filed their nomination papers ahead of the presidential election.
Fred Mtesa is a political science professor at the University of Zambia. He tells reporter Peter Clottey from the capital, Lusaka that the ongoing process to find Mwanawasa's successor is test for the ruling MMD party's internal democracy.
"This is a real test of intra-party democracy. The majority of the applicants are standing cabinet ministers within the ruling party and others are people who held key positions within the party before, and some prominent persons within the Zambian society. I said it is a test of intra-party democracy because all of them are free to apply, but then the real test will come with the selection mechanism and what happens thereafter, whether people will rally be behind the candidate that would be chosen without weakening the party in terms of split and other breakaway groups," Mtesa pointed out.
He said the First Lady's endorsement of finance minister Magande could cut both ways.
"Obviously the statement by the first lady is bound to tilt support in favor of the finance minister, but the real power at the moment lies within the National Executive Committee of the ruling party, which is going to decide, which candidate to settle on, and the first lady is not a member of that committee. And since Dr. Mwanawasa is not here to corroborate that statement she made, and I'm not saying she lied, but it just means that it is the men and women in the national executive committee that will have the final say on who succeeds the late President Mwanawasa," he said.
Mtesa said the time for the presidential election is so short it might level the playing field ahead of the election for both the ruling party and the other opposition parties.
"I would say everybody has a chance, and that depends on how they go about their campaigns. Time is short of course, and we are just hoping that the electoral commission will put all the logistics in place to allow for election that will be accepted as having been free and fair by all the political parties," Mtesa noted.
He said the recently held general election is still fresh on the minds of Zambians.
"I would say we are just two years away from the last election, and people still remember who campaigned where and what they stood for. Of course the environment has changed, but not very fundamentally. So it is going to be an exciting election I would say," he said.
Mtesa said the reported rift within the ruling party could spell doom for the party if not resolved ahead of the upcoming presidential election.
"It definitely does not help the course of the ruling MMD in plural political environment to wash their dirty linen in public. And really we are waiting to see what the outcome of this intra-party competition will mean for the future of the party," Mtesa pointed out.
Some observes said the high number of presidential hopefuls may be a sign of deep divisions in the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy. The main opposition Patriotic Front leader Michael Sata and Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development, the third biggest party in parliament, will also contest the presidential vote.
Meanwhile, Magande and Vice president Banda, who is now acting president, have emerged as the strongest contenders. The MMD will select a candidate on September 5, two days after Mwanawasa's funeral. Mwanawasa had led Zambia since 2001 and was re-elected in 2006. His tough stance against corruption endeared him to donor countries and he was credited for turning the southern African nation into one of Africa's economic success stories.