LUSAKA, October 30 – Zambians went to the polls on Thursday to elect a new president, with police and soldiers on alert for fear of violence after the opposition accused the government of planning to rig the outcome.,
Acting President Rupiah Banda and populist opposition leader Michael Sata are locked in a neck-and-neck race to replace president Levy Mwanawasa who died in August following a stroke.
Sata has already accused election authorities of scheming to rig the ballot, prompting police and military to put forces on high alert for fear of violence when the first results are announced, possibly late Thursday night.
Small, quiet lines of people waited for polling stations in central Lusaka to open at 6:00 am (0400 GMT), arriving an hour early to wait to cast ballots during the 12 hours of voting, with African election observers and a few police on hand.
"I woke up at 4:20 am … and was here at about five minutes before 5:00 am," said Jossy Phiri, 40, who the first to arrive with his wife at one polling station in central Lusaka.
Phiri said the race was too close to call. "Only the votes will tell," he said.
During his final campaign rally in Lusaka on Wednesday, Sata had urged his supporters to sleep outside polling stations to prevent any vote-rigging.
For his part Banda vowed not to allow any disruptions to the election.
"No one will be allowed to upset the peace in the country. Until the election results are announced, I am still president and will not allow it," Banda, a 71-year-old a former diplomat, told 10,000 supporters at his final rally Wednesday.
He promised to follow in the footsteps of Mwanawasa, who won plaudits in the West for his economic record and his willingness to criticise President Robert Mugabe in neighbouring Zimbabwe.
"I will continue the policies and programmes that Mwanawasa started. I will complete them and add more," said Banda, candidate of the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD).
Speaking at his final rally in an upmarket Lusaka suburb, populist Sata, 71, again warned his supporters against possible vote-rigging.
"We have to go and check. When you are here, they are preparing to rig. You need to go and check each and every station," he told his supporters.
Sata claims he was robbed of victory in the last election in 2006, when his supporters rioted for days in protest. Sata says he never condoned the violence, but never pursued a court case to press his claims of fraud.
Zambia’s army chief, General Isaac Shisuze, Wednesday ordered troops to be on alert for any unrest.
"We have heard that some people are planning to cause bloodshed in this country. We will not allow them. We are trained to defend this country," he said while addressing soldiers in an army barracks.
"Therefore, we should deal with anybody who would try to cause violence," he said.
Banda is a western-educated economist and experienced diplomat. Sata has had little formal education but is a shrewd political operator who rose from the ranks to become a key minister in earlier governments.
Two other candidates are potential spoilers for either side.
UPND (United Party for National Development) leader Hakainde Hichilema, 46, is seen as a dark horse contender, while former vice president Godfrey Miyanda of the Heritage Party is seen as an also-ran.
The winner Thursday will ride out the end of Mwanawasa’s term, until 2011.