Zambia leader's health sparks power struggle

President Levy Mwanawasa – a key Mugabe critic – is recovering from a June 29 stroke.

Jose Cendon/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom
'Stable': President Levy Mwanawasa (seen here in an earlier photo) suffered a stroke in Egypt last month.

What happens when a country hasn't heard from its president in a month?

That's the question Zambians are asking in the curious case of Levy Patrick Mwanawasa.

Mr. Mwanawasa, who has served as president of this peaceful but poor southern African nation since 2001, suffered a stroke on June 29 while attending an African Union summit in Egypt. He underwent surgery and was subsequently rushed to a French military hospital in Paris amid rumors that he had died.

The Zambian government says the ailing Mwanawasa, who remains in the French hospital, is "stable" and very much alive. But there have been no photos, TV footage, or audio recordings, and many Zambians fear the worst. The stroke was Mwanawasa's second in less than three years, and the former attorney's health has often fueled speculation.

Even as Zambians hope for Mwanawasa's recovery, his condition has set up the beginnings of a power struggle in Zambia's ruling party and could pose a key test for a young democracy that has never lost a head of state to death or illness.

"It will be a big test, because it's the first time it's ever happened in this country," notes Neo Simutanyi, a political analyst who runs the Centre for Policy Dialogue, a Zambian think tank. Mr. Simutanyi says that the government should give the Zambian people more information on the president's condition.

A critic of Zimbabwe's Mugabe

Mwanawasa, Zambia's third president since gaining independence from Britain in 1964, is a favorite of Western donors for his anticorruption policies. The current chairman of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Mwanawasa also has been a rare African critic of Zimbabwean ruler Robert Mugabe, likening Zimbabwe's economy to "a sinking Titanic."

The morning of July 3, rumors starting circulating by text message that Mwanawasa had died – even South African president Thabo Mbeki announced that Mwanawasa was dead – before Zambian officials took to the airwaves to proclaim that he was still alive.

Under the Zambian Constitution, if a president is deemed incapacitated, the vice president takes over and a special election is called within 90 days. But top Zambian officials are refusing to entertain such ideas yet, and dismiss opposition calls for a medical board to assess the president's health as politically motivated.

Mwanawasa had not yet anointed a successor within the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy party, though the current home affairs and finance ministers, and even his wife, Maureen, have been mentioned as potential candidates in the next presidential elections scheduled for 2011.

Other party hopefuls are maneuvering quietly to avoid being seen as capitalizing on Mwanawasa's illness. When the party spokesman, Benny Tetamashimba, said that the party should begin considering the issue of Mwanawasa's successor when he returns party leaders slapped him down, and have declared a party ban on discussing succession issues.

Jockeying for succession

In the event of a special election, divisions in the ruling party could give an opening to businessman Haikande Hichilema, who heads the opposition United Party for National Development, or Michael Sata, the populist leader of the opposition Patriotic Front, whose fiery rhetoric worries many in the business community.

In the meantime, Zambian civic and business leaders and foreign diplomats are tiptoeing around the issue. They worry that key investment and aid decisions will be delayed, a setback for an economy that is just now experiencing growth after decades of stagnation. In the Zambian system, not many key policy decisions get made without the president's involvement, notes analyst Simutanyi. "It's not good for business," he says.

Many Zambians, like Clement, a banker who declined to give his full name, assume that even if Mwanawasa survives, he won't be able to continue in office and say a transition is likely around the corner.

"The only good thing is we are a peaceful people," he says. "That is what is keeping us together."

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