LUSAKA, October 30 – Euphrasia Zulu, 54, arrived hours before dawn at a Lusaka polling station for one reason: she wants political change in Zambia, which was holding presidential elections Thursday.,
The race in this landlocked southern African state has been neck-and-neck between acting president Rupiah Banda and fiery populist Micheal Sata. But for Zulu, the choice was clear.
"I came early because I want to vote for Mr Sata," said Zulu, who lives in a two-room house with eight family members in one of the capital’s slums.
"We want change," she said.
Sata has branded himself as a "man of action," whose poor-friendly promises to transform Zambia have earned him support in Lusaka where residents eagerly recite his campaign slogans.
They believe Sata will deliver basic needs of better schools, houses, hospitals, sanitation and jobs missing from the city’s poorer areas.
Home for many of the city’s destitute amounts to slums full of tightly congested houses along dusty bumpy roads — a far cry from the handful of malls here that sport bustling restaurants and glossy bars.
While Zambia’s economy has boomed in recent years thanks to soaring global prices for copper, few riches have filtered down to the poor.
"We want the wealth to trickle down," said 40-year-old businessman Mukula Makasa.
"We want change that we can believe in, change that can inspire us."
Zambia’s ruling MMD has been in power for 17 years, but in interviews many people said they wanted it to deliver more.
Kilometres (miles) away in one of Lusaka’s largest urban slums, where hawkers punt anything from brightly printed African cloths to tomatoes, voters also listed basic needs as key in Thursday’s vote.
"We don’t have water and sanitation is very poor," said Mary Sankeni, a 25-year-old student, who will vote for Hakainde Hichilema, 46, of the United Party for National Development, seen as a dark horse contender.
"We want a government that will look after people," she said.
But some voters said they voted for Banda because they wanted to stick to the ruling party of late leader Levy Mwanawasa, who once drew praise for his prudent economic policies.
"Let him finish this term. We have to let him finish what Mwanawasa left," said Patricia Matamba, 25.
Analysts have said the presidential race is too close to call as tensions mount between the two main parties, with Sata on Thursday again accusing officials of election-rigging.
His stringent rhetoric, which has earned him the nickname "King Cobra," this week prompted police and military to put forces on high alert for fear of violence in anticipation of the first results, expected Friday morning.
The risk of violence weighs on the minds of voters, who remember how Sata’s supporters rioted for days in Lusaka following his 2006 defeat to Mwanawasa.
"I’ve been on the ground, and three-quarters of people are saying they want change. The violence may come up if the results go in favour of the ruling party," said Barry Lukwesa, an unemployed 25-year-old, as he waited to cast his ballot.
But voting on Thursday morning appeared peaceful, with Zambians presenting voter cards to electoral authorities in a relaxed, laid-back atmosphere as the temperature rose from the opening of the polls at 6:00 am (0400 GMT).
"Zambia is a peaceful nation. As long as the electoral process is credible, peace will prevail," voter Makasa said.