Zambia Count Begins as Peaceful Vote Follows Violent Campaign

  • EU observers witness high turn-out at polling stations
  • NKC analyst Van Staden sees lingering threat of violence

Voting in Zambia drew to a close Thursday and ballot counting was set to begin to determine the winner of a rematch of last year’s neck-and-neck elections between President Edgar Lungu and his main challenger, Hakainde Hichilema.

Less than 28,000 votes separated the two men when they contested a snap poll 19 months ago, after President Michael Sata died in office. While Lungu, 59, enjoyed blanket state-media coverage of his campaign, an economic slump and the defection of several high-profile members of the ruling Patriotic Front to Hichilema’s United Party for National Development have reduced his odds of winning a full five-year term.

“The race is close only between the two main parties,” Neo Simutanyi, the director of the Lusaka-based Center for Policy Dialogue, said by phone on Wednesday as he waited to cast his vote in the capital. “It’s possible it can still be as close as it was last time. I think a high turnout is going to be a good thing for Hichilema and UPND. A low turnout may actually be good for the ruling party.”

Power Shortages

Lungu and Hichilema, 54, were among nine candidates who ran for the presidency of Africa’s second-biggest copper producer. Voters also cast ballots for new lawmakers, mayors and local councilors. The new administration will have to try to revive an economy that’s growing at its slowest pace since 1998 due to power shortages and a slide in the price of copper, which accounts for more than 70 percent of export earnings. It also faces negotiating a bail-out package from the International Monetary Fund to help shore up the state’s coffers.

Zambia’s kwacha has weakened 26 percent against the dollar over the past 12 months, the fourth-worst performance in Africa, pushing the inflation rate to more than 20 percent. Yields on Zambia’s $1 billion of bonds due April 2024 rose 4 basis points to 9.47 percent at 4:58 p.m. in Lusaka on Thursday, after closing at its lowest level in a year the day before. Glencore Plc and First Quantum Minerals Ltd. are among international companies with operations in Zambia.

“I want to vote for change,” bottle store owner Alex Chiwevu, 37, said as he waited to vote in Lusaka’s Olympia suburb. “The price of food is very high and power cuts are creating big problems for me.”

The lead-up to the election was characterized by allegations and counter-allegations of violence and intimidation from the ruling party and opposition, yet electoral officials and police said the vote itself was peaceful. While polls were due to close at 6 p.m. local time, all those waiting in line will be able to cast their ballots. About 6.7 million people registered to vote in the country of 16.2 million.

Generally Peaceful

A European Union observer mission said its members witnessed long lines of voters and a generally peaceful environment at polling stations.

“We are happy to see so many people coming to vote,” Cécile Kyenge, the mission’s chief observer, said in a preliminary statement on its website. “It shows that Zambians value their democratic rights.”

The Electoral Commission of Zambia aims to complete the count by Sunday. A presidential candidate must win more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff.

Lungu, a lawyer, has highlighted progress in improving infrastructure, education and health care during his campaign -- projects that have helped boost the budget deficit to more than 10 percent of gross domestic product -- and pledged to diversify the economy away from copper if re-elected.

Hichilema, an economist and businessman widely known by his initials HH, has failed in four previous bids for the presidency. He’s pledged to revive growth, promote investment and ensure state funds are better spent.

Seeking Jobs

“I’m looking for a president who can create jobs,” said Michael Msimuko, a 30-year-old licensing officer at the state copyright regulator. “Three-quarters of my friends aren’t working.”

Hichilema’s backers include several ex-PF heavyweights, such as Guy Scott, who acted briefly as president after Sata’s death, and Mulenga Sata, the late president’s son. His running mate is Geoffrey Mwamba, an ex-defense minister from the north of the country who has helped rally support from the Bemba, the country’s largest ethnic group.

“The lingering dangers of potential violence, the rejection of outcomes and disputes that go beyond legal resolutions threaten to set Zambia back a decade or more, so the next few days will be critical,” Gary van Staden, an analyst at NKC African Economics in Paarl, near Cape Town, said in e-mailed comments.

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