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Zambians vote for new president amid tension

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Zambians queued round the block in Lusaka on Thursday as voting began for a new president and legislators in what is expected to be a tough battle, as slow growth and weak commodity prices weigh on Africa’s second-biggest copper producer.

President Edgar Lungu and his main rival, Hakainde Hichilema, have each said they are confident of outright victory. But with nine candidates standing in all, both could fail to garner more than half of the vote as required by electoral law, necessitating a second round.

Voting got off to an anxious start in some places, with police stepping in to control people waiting in a long queue stretching almost half way around the block at one polling station in the capital, Lusaka.

“We’ve turned out to cast our votes in large numbers because that’s our right, to ensure that our future and that of our children is protected,” said Robinson Mwanza, 30, a construction worker who said he was backing Lungu.

Voters said the long queues could be a sign that Zambians wanted change. When Lungu narrowly beat Hichilema in a presidential election last year to replace the late Michael Sata, Turnout slumped to just 32 percent from nearly 54 percent in 2011.

Lungu’s Patriotic Front (PF) has since been hit by splits, with influential figures like former vice president Guy Scott, former defense minister Geoffrey Mwamba and Sata’s son Mulenga all defecting to Hichilema’s United Party for National Development (UPND).

“I am voting for HH because I am very confident that he is going to turn around the economy,” said 42-year-old trader Sungwe Siame, referring to Hichilema by his nickname.

RISING UNEMPLOYMENT

Zambia, one of Africa’s most stable democracies, has been tense as rising unemployment after mine closures, chronic electricity shortages and soaring prices for household goods all take their toll.

Supporters of the ruling PF and the UPND have clashed in the run-up to the poll, forcing the electoral commission to suspend campaigning at one point.

Economist-turned-businessman Hichilema says Lungu, a former lawyer, lacks the expertise to manage the economy.

“The difference between PF and UPND is what we bring to the table, knowledge of the financial markets and economics,” Hichilema said on a radio program on Wednesday.

“We are business people. We understand the economy, this economy is broken.”

But Lungu insists the economic downturn was beyond his control given Zambia’s heavy reliance on copper exports, and that his government has commissioned new power plants and invested in sectors like agriculture to diversify the economy.

“I have been on probation for one year, six months and I think I have done very well. I promise to serve you even better,” Lungu told thousands of supporters at his final rally.

“And I promise to respect the results and I will not fight even one day, to remain in State House. But I will not allow somebody to come to State House (through) violence or intimidation,” he added.

Zambia is in talks with the International Monetary Fund on a possible financing deal after judging that its budget deficit, which has averaged 4.8 percent of gross domestic product in the last two years, was unsustainable.

The electoral commission said it aims to have final results for the presidential vote out by Saturday night. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, a second round between the top two candidates must be held within 37 days.

Hichilema has said the election will not be free and fair after police blocked several of his rallies while media coverage was biased in favor of the ruling party.

Lungu insists the playing field has been level, however.

“The probability of a contested election result is growing, which would undermine the credibility of the vote and trigger more widespread partisan violence,” said Robert Besseling, head of the EXX Africa think-tank.

[Source: Reuters]
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