LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — FACING growing opposition after 26 years of rule, Zambia's president, Kenneth Kaunda, has promised to hold a referendum on his one-party state. But opponents say the government's grip on the process may preclude a fair outcome. Mr. Kaunda's authority was challenged last month when the subsidy was cut on maize meal, the national staple, doubling its price overnight. Students in Zambia's impoverished townships staged a protest against the continuation of one-party rule by Kaunda's United National Independence Party (UNIP). In response, Kaunda announced that a referendum would be held on Oct. 17 to decide on the continuation of a one-party state.
When the food riots were followed by an unsuccessful coup attempt June 30, large crowds took to the streets to celebrate what they believed to be Kaunda's overthrow. The Army hesitated for several hours before coming to the president's rescue.
The coup attempt has cast a shadow over Zambia's planned referendum. Few proponents of multiparty politics believe the result will swing their way, pointing to the ruling party's close control over polling procedures.
``The party cannot be the referees, linesmen, and players,'' complains Vernon Mwaanga, a former Cabinet minister, now a private businessman and a prominent government critic. Mr. Mwaanga is one of a small group of ex-politicians and entrepreneurs who might provide a core of alternative leadership. Advocating free enterprise and democracy, he is likely to have the business community's support.
Trade union leader Frederick Chiluba has also been vocal in his calls for the legalization of opposition parties. As chairman of the quarter-million-strong Zambian Congress of Trade Unions, he can call on the only alternative political structure in the country.
But Kaunda has appointed a four-man commission to oversee voting, and rejected trade union calls to give the opposition equal media coverage and to scrap the 25-year-old state of emergency before the referendum. He has also refused to permit foreign observers, another precondition demanded by his opponents.
Kaunda, calling the opposition ``wild dogs,'' has heaped the blame for Zambia's recent unrest on their heads, alleging that a return to multiparty politics would mean ``Lusaka on fire ... We'd be killing each other, petrol-bombing each other.''
Many believe that the referendum will be a signal for a comprehensive crackdown on government critics. ``There seems little doubt that it will be used as a weapon to destroy them,'' says a Western diplomat in Lusaka. ``The distinctions between political opponents and coup-plotters will just be blurred.''
Youth on the streets of the townships and on campus may look increasingly toward the Army. For them, the person of the president has become the only issue. ``One-party, multiparty, Army, civilian [rule], we don't know ... We just want that man to go,'' a student says.
The last time the Zambian government tried to cut subsidies on the price of maize meal as part of an International Monetary Fund austerity program, the subsequent rioting forced Kaunda to retract the price hikes and scrap the program, in favor of a gentler recovery plan. That plan failed to reverse the country's economic decline.