Zambian election shows even one-party leaders can be popular

Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda, who has met with every US president since John F. Kennedy and has the inside Washington track when it comes to respected African statesmen, is consolidating his already strong position at home.

Admittedly, his victory in the presidential election last week was assured. He was the only candidate in a one-party system. But the poll offered two possible clues as to whether President Kaunda has the country behind him.

1. The comparatively high voter turnout (about 62 percent of those eligible to vote) suggests Kaunda remains popular. If he were out of favor with Zambians, voters might have stayed away from the polls.

2. President Kaunda was able to pull in as much as a 92 percent positive vote compared to the 80 percent approval he drew in the last election in 1982.

President Kaunda's victory - his fifth such presidential election win - is a reminder that besides military leaders, Africa has a number of civilian leaders who have stabilized their country's politics through long years of uninterrupted tenure.

Aside from Kaunda, the other long-serving nonmilitary rulers who have led their countries since independence are Hastings Banda of Malawi, Ahmed Sekou Toure of Guinea, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Felix Houphouet-Boigny of the Ivory Coast, and Chief Leabua Jonathan of Lesotho.

The charismatic qualities of rulers like Kaunda of Zambia and President Nyerere, as well as their stature as pre-independence leaders, tend to inhibit challenges to their positions within their own parties. But neither country has escaped coup attempts.

And all the long-tenured African leaders find that even when they lead well-run economies - such as those of Malawi and Ivory Coast - the world recession has touched them. The economic squeeze, often caused by falling commodity prices and fluctuating exchange rates, has increased social tensions in Africa and raised political risks for leaders.

Faced with this challenge, leaders like Kaunda have been forced to abandon many of their plans for more socialist societies. The price for economic survival is proving to be a period of stern austerity largely dictated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Zambia, like its northern neighbor Zaire, incurred the displeasure of the IMF in failing to meet past conditions on borrowing and fiscal management. But like Zaire, it has learned that it really doesn't have another option.

Zambia has worked hard to get its economic house in order. It earned an IMF rescue package by raising interest rates, reducing some price controls, and increasing the price of basic commodities such as cooking oil and soap by up to 20 percent.

Leaders like Kaunda know that these stiff measures, while saving the economy, produce political strains. But a vote of confidence for Kaunda shores up his political base and provides some assurance that even if the people don't like fiscal austerity, they support his leadership.

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