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Zambian lawyer quiet in tight presidential race

Edgar Lungu’s rise from backroom politician to presidential front-runner has revealed a steely determination.

FILE: Edgar Lungu (L) talks to foreign affairs minister Harry Kalaba during a military exhibition march past on 24 October, 2014 to mark Zambia's 50th Independence celebration. Picture: AFP.

LUSAKA - Zambian lawyer Edgar Lungu's rapid rise from backroom politician to presidential front-runner in one of Africa's most promising frontier markets has revealed a steely determination that few knew lay beneath his quiet exterior.

The ruling Patriotic Front (PF) candidate goes into the copper producer's 20 January presidential by-election as slight favourite over main rival Hakainde Hichilema, a businessman whose United Party for National Development is popular with the middle-class and investors.

But with no reliable opinion polls, few experts are keen to call a clear winner in the contest to succeed President Michael Sata, who died in office in October aged 77.

"Lungu has the edge but there are so many unknowns this time around," said Alex Ng'oma, a political analyst at the University of Zambia. "It's too close to call."

Lungu has been swift to tap into the working class support base of Sata, a populist leader from the majority Bemba tribe, using catch phrases and slang in traditional languages on the campaign trail, while avoiding detailed policy debates.

His promises to build roads and reduce fuel and food prices, despite IMF pressure to cut public spending, mirror the pledges that won Sata a 2011 election.

"We vote Lungu because of Michael Sata," said Gilbert Neba, a shoe-seller on a bustling street in the capital, Lusaka.

"SILENT TYPE"

However, Lungu, a tall, slim figure described by his campaign team as the "silent type", is a very different prospect from Sata, an abrasive leader nicknamed 'King Cobra' because of his venomous tongue.

He only emerged as a potential PF leader in August when Sata shocked the ruling party by firing his presumed successor, justice minister Wynter Kabimba, and replacing him with Lungu.

"If you asked anyone six months ago who would be the next president, no one would have picked Edgar," a lawyer who has worked with Lungu told Reuters.

"But maybe we should have known. He's a quiet guy but very persuasive. He's got this affable, laid-back style and people tend to give him what he wants before they realise it."

Hichilema, known locally as "HH", won 18 percent of votes in 2011 but is thought to have gained support due to PF infighting following Sata's death.

With another election due in 20 months when Sata's first term would have ended, the winner will have little time to overturn a host of economic problems.

Zambia, the continent's biggest copper producer after Democratic Republic of Congo, has been one of the world's best performing economies in the last decade, averaging 6-7 percent growth as the mining sector boomed.

But growth slowed to 5.5 percent last year and could ease further with the price of copper, which accounts for 70 percent of export earnings, falling to a 6-year low this week.

The government is also in deadlock with mining companies over unpaid VAT returns and royalty increases, adding to pressure on the kwacha currency.

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