Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa's death has dealt a double blow to Southern Africa, not only generating fears of possible political instability in Zambia but also concern about the impact on the process of finding a solution in Zimbabwe, according to analysts.
Under the current constitution, which is under review, Zambians will have to head for fresh polls within 90 days.
Mwanawasa, as chair of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), was one of the first regional leaders, together with the past and current presidents of Botswana, to openly criticise Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's policies.
Mwanawasa died in a French hospital on 19 August, nearly two months after he was admitted as a result of suffering a stroke, said Zambian vice-president Rupiah Banda. He was 59.
Describing Mwanawasa as a "good friend and comrade", the leader of Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Morgan Tsvangirai, said he had "left us at this most trying time".
The late Zambian president had been "a champion of the democratisation of the SADC region in particular, and the African continent in general; as such, his passing-on is a sad day to the Zimbabwean people, who at this stage are yearning for a new beginning which can unquestionably be characterised as democratic and a reflection of the will of the people," said Tsvangirai.
|The region has truly lost one of the most influential figures [contributing] to resolving the Zimbabwe situation. It now leaves Botswana alone|
Mwanawasa was an outspoken critic of Mugabe, and once likened Zimbabwe to a "sinking titanic". During the violent clashes before Zimbabwe's general election in early 2008, he described what was happening in the neighbouring country as "embarrassing to the region and the continent".
His last statement as chair of SADC, read on his behalf on 16 August, was yet another strongly worded criticism of the ruling Zimbabwean regime, in which he labelled the events leading up to and including the run-off election on 27 June to elect the Zimbabwean president as "a serious blot on the culture of democracy in our sub-region."
Lee Habasonda, executive director of the Southern African Centre for Constructive Resolution of Disputes [SACCORD], a regional good governance and human rights watchdog, said: "The region has truly lost one of the most influential figures [contributing] to resolving the Zimbabwe situation. It now leaves Botswana alone."
Botswana has said it regards Mugabe as an illegitimate leader because he lost the legitimate election on 29 March, and won the run-off 27 June as sole the candidate after MDC leader Tsvangirai withdrew because his supporters were being violently attacked.
"His [Mwanawasa's] leadership was slowly beginning to take away that conservative and freedom fighter mentality which has been undermining governance and democracy in the region. The onus now is on the [other] regional leaders to consolidate on that," Habasonda commented.
Ian Khama, who assumed the Botswana presidency on 1 April, chose to boycott the last SADC summit in Johannesburg on 16 and 17 June because Mugabe had been invited. The SADC is trying to negotiate a power-sharing deal between Mugabe and Tsvangirai.
Meanwhile at home
Analysts said Mwanawasa's death could stir political bickering in his ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy [MMD], and the man to gain would be opposition leader Michael Sata.
"There will be a lot of infighting for the presidency as the MMD has no party vice-president, who should have been an automatic replacement for president Mwanawasa. They may have to go to the [national] convention but time is not allowing them. I think we shall soon see the formation of a break-away party from MMD, before the elections," said a political analyst who declined to be identified.
Mwanawasa became Zambia's president in 2001, and won a hotly contested 2006 ballot for his second and final five-year term, which would have ended in 2011.
His period in office was characterised by an anti-corruption drive that saw his predecessor, Frederick Chiluba, together with a number of high-ranking officials in the former government, in and out of court on corruption charges.
The anti-corruption drive endeared Mwanawasa to Western donors, and led to the 2005 cancellation of the country's external debt of US$7.2 billion, putting Zambia back on a path to economic recovery.
"President Mwanawasa's death leaves a big hole in terms of the fight against corruption and seriousness in managing public affairs," Habasonda said. "He showed seriousness, and his legacy will be remembered as one of the 'Rule of Law'."