LAST week witnessed the election of former Republican vice-president and recent ambassador to Canada Nevers Sekwila Mumba, 52, as president of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), following a highly contested intra-party presidential by-election.

Mumba overcame strong competition from party national youth chairperson Moses Muteteka, businessman and MMD member Enoch Kavindele, and four former Cabinet ministers in the Rupiah Banda administration - Felix Mutati, Situmbeko Musokotwane, Kabinga Pande and Kapembwa Simbao.

In the first round of voting, Mumba outperformed all his competitors by convincing margins in seven of the ten provinces. No candidate, however, achieved the 51% of the vote required by the party's constitution.

(It is very surprising that the MMD's constitution has this article while the party vehemently opposes the inclusion of such a clause in the national Constitution!) When the process moved to a run-off vote between Mumba and Mutati, Mumba increased his margin to eight provinces - except Copperbelt and Northern provinces - and was handed an emphatic electoral victory, with a 67.34% share of the vote.

This victory is a triumph for democracy, especially internal democracy in the country's leading parliamentary opposition.

It is a practice that should be emulated by other parties, in which leaders are reluctant to open themselves to political competition, such as Godfrey Miyanda's Heritage Party, Elias Chipimo's National Restoration Party, Ng'andu Magande's National Movement for Progress, Sakwiba Sikota's United Liberal Party and the United Party for National Development (UPND).

The election of Mumba as MMD president will be interpreted in conflicting ways. It is very easy to dismiss Mumba as an outsider, who failed to attract any electoral support for the party he founded, the National Citizens Coalition (NCC).

Others accuse him of having sold out to Levy Mwanawasa, disbanding his NCC in return for a vice-presidential post.

It is true that after being blocked from contesting the MMD presidency in 2005 and being expelled from the party, he went on to form the short-lived Reform Party. But he quietly returned to the MMD.

He was among the people who contested the right to be the MMD's presidential candidate in 2008 and was convincingly defeated by Rupiah Banda. So Mumba's ambition to lead the MMD and become its flag-bearer has a history. Like most Zambian politicians, he possesses and is motivated by an almost obsessional personal political ambition to be Zambia's president.

His victory last week represents another step towards his long harboured objective and is a significant development in his chequered political career. But what explains Mumba's electoral success, and what are its implications?

Mumba's election was predicated on several factors. First, unlike his defeated opponents, Mumba does not have the baggage of having been in the discredited Rupiah Banda's corruption-tainted administration. Although Mutati and Pande are regarded as honest and clean, at least by MMD standards, all the ministers who served under Banda's disgraced regime are now widely regarded as tainted.

In addition, Pande, though not unintelligent, is seen as a boring fellow with a frightening lack of charisma or popular appeal. As a minister of commerce under the Mwanawasa and Banda presidencies, Mutati seemed quite sensible, and exhibited a calm and steady pair of hands.

But many ordinary Zambians were extremely irritated by his constant parroting of the platitudes and clichés of liberal economics, appreciated mainly by foreign investors, who he seemingly loved much more than the Zambian workers, in whom he revealed no interest whatsoever.

His flat monotone of speech delivery once caused a close associate of mine to compare him to a robot, of which Mutati could give such a convincing impersonation that my friend found it difficult to regard him as human until the former commerce minister waved both arms around vigorously, an action which is quite rare in a robot.

Musokotwane, in my view, does well within financial firms and academic institutions, but he should have been confined or quarantined there and never let out into the wider world.

Plucked by Banda from the backroom where he more appropriately belongs, the technocrat who has served as a UNZA lecturer, the Bank of Zambia Deputy Governor, Governor to Central Bank of Swaziland, Secretary to the Treasury and Minister of Finance and National Planning, is absolutely lacking in personality and humour to the point of being lifeless.

Not a single person can accuse him of having charisma, an increasingly important leadership attribute in today's politics.

Although both Muteteka and Simbao have a constitutional right to contest for any position, it really defies logic to understand how they had hoped to realise their presidential ambitions. It may be that they saw this election as an opportunity to launch their presidential ambitions like Mumba did in the past.

As a keen observer of Zambian politics, I just could not imagine where their national support, had they won the party presidency, would have come from, for both mainly qualify to be led than to lead.

In addition, Muteteka, who served Banda as a deputy minister in the Ministry of Community Development and Social Services from July 2009, was earlier dismissed in 2007 as a deputy minister for his involvement in land corruption scandals. Kavindele was a passionate Banda supporter.

There are actually widespread perceptions that he managed, solely on that account, to re-instate his Solwezi railroad building contract, and is therefore viewed as someone with a long and very stinky record of corruption.

His miserable showing (0.38%) in the first round suggests that he has become completely irrelevant to the MMD and belongs to an old generation of politicians that should finally retire from active politics.

So the election was a vote for a clean-up of the party - and Mumba fitted the bill. When Mwanawasa sacked Mumba in 2005, it was not for corruption, but for alleged gross insubordination. Thus, although Mumba does have a dubious past, he has the exceptional virtue of having a non-Banda-led MMD dubious past.

The MMD needed a new face in order to cleanse itself of its Banda-infected corruption image and also to find somebody who stands outside internal party squabbles, so therefore able to command consensus on the basis of being equally acceptable to all. Mumba meets those pre-requisites. He is not tainted by scandal and has little political baggage, which will make attacking him very difficult.

Furthermore, he was an outsider, and the MMD has a proven track record of electing outsiders, partly because the so-called insiders lack the credentials to move the party forward. For example, insider Katele Kalumba, true-blue par excellence, was disqualified because of a conviction for corruption-related offences.

Second is that the MMD has gone for charisma, oratorical skills, fearlessness, personal and national appeal. In electing Mumba, party members reasoned that Mumba possesses these attributes and can be easily marketed to the Zambian people. He also comes from a respected profession, evangelism, which has a huge and fanatical following in the country.

Mumba's increasingly polished performance in the very long run-up to this election excited the membership. Perhaps his clerical training and long experience as an evangelist explains his fluency of speech, cogency of argument, and ability to answer, not duck, questions.

He was seen as, by far, the best of all the contenders at holding the PF government to account and explaining the issues in a clear and persuasive manner. He was also by far the most eloquent, and he put his skills to good use in campaigning all around the country, thereby also showing energy, purpose, organisation and commitment.

Third, Mumba was viewed as someone with the moral authority and political capacity to institute fundamental reforms within the MMD and to hold the PF government to account, without suffering the embarrassing humiliation of being reminded about once having been part of a discredited and, in the eyes of many, notoriously corrupt regime.

He has a realistic chance of not only encouraging members who have left the party to return but also of attracting new supporters especially from PF strongholds like Lusaka and Copperbelt. It was envisaged by the MMD members that a 'new face' like Mumba's could probably change the public's perception of the MMD.

But can Nevers Mumba really save the MMD and make it more acceptable, relevant and electable again? Or did the MMD provincial assemblies make a wrong choice in electing Mumba as its leader? What are the implications of his victory for the PF and the opposition parties alike? For a comprehensive analysis to these questions, read this column next Tuesday. Don't miss!