Although the next round of presidential and legislative elections is over 18 months away, Zambia's politicians appear to be almost completely preoccupied with the task of consolidating support ahead of them. This partly reflects the widespread expectation that the 2011 election will be the most closely contested election since the shift to multiparty politics in 1991-Michael Sata, the leader of the Patriotic Front (PF) and the prime threat to the president, Rupiah Banda, in 2011, lost the 2008 election on an extremely narrow margin, securing 38.7% of the vote against Mr Banda's 40.7%, and his electoral prospects have been buoyed since then by growing discontent with the government's performance (March 2010, The political scene). In its quest to combat the steady rise in Mr Sata's popularity, Mr Banda's party-the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD)-has resorted to several unsavoury tactics. Most notably, it has tried to appeal to historic rivalries between the Bemba and the Tonga ethnic groups to undermine the electoral alliance between the PF and the United Party for National Development (UPND). While Mr Sata belongs to the Bemba group, the UPND's leader, Hakainde Hichilema, comes from the Tonga group. The MMD has drawn on this to instigate dissent among UPND legislators and Tonga traditional chiefs, urging them to withdraw their support for Mr Hichilema because he has aligned himself with a member of the Bemba group. The MMD appears to have had some success in its endeavours, with a few Tonga chiefs retracting their support for Mr Hichilema and switching allegiances to the MMD.
Although Zambia has had no recent record of conflict or confrontation between its ethnic groups, historical rivalries between groups such as the Tonga and the Bemba have continued to exercise an influence on political attitudes. The PF's and UPND's ability to negotiate an alliance, despite their leaders' tribal backgrounds, was therefore surprising and encouraging. The MMD's tactics, conversely, are disappointing, as by emphasising tribal allegiances they have arguably served to reinforce them.