Debt-ridden Zambia votes in closely contested polls

Sixteen presidential candidates are vying for the top job, but the frontrunners are incumbent Edgar Lungu, 64, and his long-time nemesis Hakainde Hichilema, a business tycoon, who are facing off at the polls for the third time.

A woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Lusaka on 12 August 2021 as Zambians elect their next president after a tense campaign dominated by economic woes in Africa's first coronavirus-era sovereign defaulting country. Picture: Patrick Meinhardt/AFP

LUSAKA - Zambians were voting in a general election on Thursday after a tense campaign dominated by economic woes, a debt crisis and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Sixteen presidential candidates are vying for the top job, but the frontrunners are incumbent Edgar Lungu, 64, and his long-time nemesis Hakainde Hichilema, a business tycoon, who are facing off at the polls for the third time.

Hichilema, 59, who is running for a sixth time, is backed by an alliance of 10 parties. Queues of hundreds of people formed before dawn in front of voting stations in Lusaka's densely-populated and working class neighbourhoods, before polls opened at 6:00 a.m. (0400 GMT). President Lungu was among the first people to vote at a nursery school in Chawama, a poor neighbourhood of Lusaka.

Upbeat, Lungu told reporters: "We are winning, otherwise I wouldn't have been in the race if we were not winning, we are a winning team". But a flagging economy and rising living costs have eroded his support base, surveys suggest, and the election could be even tighter than 2016 polls when he narrowly scraped a victory over Hichilema.

Lungu, a lawyer by training, is accused of borrowing unsustainably, particularly from Chinese creditors, to finance a spree of infrastructure projects. Under him, Zambia became the first African country to default on its sovereign debt since the coronavirus pandemic began, while inflation soared to 24.6 percent in June, the highest rate in more than a decade.

Africa's second biggest producer of copper after the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the eighth producer in the world, missed another debt repayment this year.

"I am voting for change. We can't continue on this path," said Andrew Daka, 20, who was voting for the first time in his life.

'HOPING FOR CHANGE'

Just before he cast his ballot, 35-year-old unemployed primary school teacher Ernest Chimba, said he was "hoping for change on the issue of the economy... because the cost of living in Zambia has gone really high".

But Lungu says that "things are moving well in the country", although his critics point to the high cost of living, poverty and joblessness. Tensions have flared in the run-up to polling in this southern African country of 17 million people.

Supporters of Lungu's Patriotic Front (PF) party and Hichilema's United Party for National Development (UPND) have clashed violently on several occasions, prompting Lungu to deploy the army.

Critics denounced the unprecedented move as a tactic to intimidate opposition voters, which the PF denies.

The president has also grown tough on dissent since he took power in 2015, raising concerns of heavyhandedness if results are contested. UPND supporters have meanwhile been keeping a low profile in the capital Lusaka, a Lungu stronghold, for fear of being attacked by PF counterparts.

Around seven million citizens are registered to vote for a president, legislators and local government representatives. The winning candidate must acquire more than 50% of votes to avoid a run-off, which analysts deem unlikely. If no one makes it past the threshold, a second-round will be held in 37 days. Lungu is confident of bagging half-a-million votes more than Hichilema.

Hichilema is pinning his hopes on disenchantment with Lungu's administration of the economy to clinch the presidency.

"Zambia is at a crossroads," Hichilema said Wednesday, pledging to fix the economy.

The opposition has accused the government of seeking to rig the ballot, allegations the PF has rejected. United Nations chief Antonio Guterres is "closely" following the vote and called on all candidates "to do their part to create an environment conducive to credible, inclusive and peaceful elections", his spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

Local and international observers will be monitoring polling stations, some of which will be using a biometric voter identification system for the first time. Polls close at 6:00 p.m. (1600 GMT) at more than 12,000 voting stations dotted across the vast country. Official results are expected by Sunday.

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