, Lusaka, Zambia, Aug 11 – Zambians streamed to the polls Thursday to choose a new president after a closely-fought election campaign marred by “unprecedented” violence that has threatened the country’s relative stability.
Election day was peaceful and turnout appeared to be high, as long lines of voters cast their ballots for the national assembly and local councillors as well as the presidency.
President Edgar Lungu, who narrowly won office last year in a snap election, faces another strong challenge from his main rival Hakainde Hichilema in a field of nine candidates.
Only 27,757 votes separated the two candidates in the 2015 election.
At least three people were killed during this year’s campaign, with regular clashes erupting between supporters of Lungu’s Patriotic Front (PF) and Hichilema’s United Party for National Development (UPND).
The election commission described the unrest as “unprecedented”, warning it had “marred Zambia’s historic record of peaceful elections”.
Last month, campaigning was halted in the capital Lusaka for 10 days to reduce the violence.
But skirmishes continued, including fighting in the streets close to Hichilema’s final rally on Wednesday.
Zambia, a British colony until 1964, recorded GDP growth of 3.6 percent last year — its slowest rate since 1998.
The falling price of copper, the country’s key export, has badly damaged the economy with thousands of jobs lost in mining and inflation soaring to over 20 percent.
– Free and fair? –
“The people of Zambia… have never suffered like this since independence,” Hichilema, a wealthy businessman known as “HH”, told reporters after he voted Thursday.
“We are expecting free, fair and transparent elections. Zambians expect nothing short of that (and) whoever wins in that environment, so be it.”
Hichilema had previously claimed that fraud denied him victory last year.
Zambia, in contrast to neighbours like Angola and Zimbabwe, has escaped war and serious upheaval in recent decades.
It last held a peaceful transfer of power to an opposition party in 2011 when Michael Sata took office.
He died in 2014, and the 2015 election gave Lungu the right to finish Sata’s term.
“I am happy with the voter turnout so far,” Lungu, 59, said in a statement after voting.
“I will be back home waiting for the results to be announced peacefully. I urge you to do the same.”
At his final election rally, Lungu mocked Hichilema, 54, for making his fifth bid for power.
“He is hoping he will get to the (presidency)… because he wants to make more money,” Lungu said.
The results are expected late Friday or Saturday.
Constitutional changes mean that the winner must now secure more than 50 percent of the vote, pointing to a possible second round run-off to be held within weeks.
“There is too much joblessness and the economy has gone to shambles,” Patricia Situmbeko, 50, a mother of five, told AFP after voting in the low-income Mtendere district of Lusaka.
“The youth are unemployed, there is much violence and the cost of living is rising so fast.
“Zambia was peaceful but the president got his cadres excited and they attack the UPND people.”
– Opposition complaints –
Katherine Mutya, 38, spent three hours in line waiting to vote.
“For me I think life is getting better,” she said. “We need to get more electricity and water, but it is happening slowly.”
Hichilema has repeatedly accused the authorities of turning a blind eye to attacks on UPND supporters and of undermining the opposition campaign by banning its rallies.
The UPND’s vice presidential candidate was arrested and released twice earlier this year, and his house was raided by police.
The Post, an influential independent newspaper, was forced to close in June over alleged non-payment of taxes, while the state-run broadcaster has been accused of blatant pro-Lungu bias.
On the campaign trail, Hichilema stressed his business credentials as an asset to turning around the economy.
“We will bring knowledge to the table,” he said.
Analysts have warned that the election count could be tense.
“Both parties have approached the election as a ‘do-or-die’ affair,” said Dimpho Motsamai, of the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies.
“Prospects of violence after the election and during the run-off cannot be ruled out.”
Polls closed at 1600 GMT, though voters already in line were still able to cast their ballot.