LUSAKA, Sep 23 – Michael Sata, the populist leader of Zambia’s opposition, was declared the country’s next president early Friday, after a tense election marred by outbursts of violence that left two people dead.
Sata’s own supporters, fearful that President Rupiah Banda’s camp was trying to steal the vote, were behind much of the unrest.
But as Chief Justice Ernest Sakala declared his victory shortly after midnight, they poured into the streets of Lusaka cheering, dancing and honking horns.
Riot police stood by as the crowd chanted “Let’s go Sata! Let’s go!”
“This is the result that the Zambian people have been expecting for a very long time. Finally this is it,” said Edward Mwalimu, a university lecturer who joined the throng.
The electoral commission said Sata had won with 43 percent of the vote to Banda’s 36 percent, with a handful of constituencies still counting ballots.
His swearing-in was expected around midday Friday, which will make Zambia one of the few countries in Africa to have two democratic transitions of power since independence.
Banda’s Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD) has ruled since Frederick Chiluba unseated independence leader Kenneth Kaunda in the first democratic elections in 1991.
But Chiluba’s graft trial changed public perceptions of the party.
Convicted of corruption in a London court, he was acquitted in Lusaka. Banda’s government refused to appeal, and he disbanded the anti-corruption team that had brought the case to trial.
That only fuelled Sata’s campaign, as he promised to clean up graft.
“We finally got the leader who we wanted and who will listen to our cries,” said a joyous Shadrack Mwewa, 20, a driver who sang the national anthem in the street after the result was announced.
“I like him because I know that him being in power, he will bring change.”
His supporters’ frustration at the slow pace of the vote count turned to violence Thursday in two key Copperbelt mining towns. Police there said two people were killed in riots that they had to break up with tear gas and water cannons.
One person died after being hit by a mini-bus during the riots, while another was apparently shot dead, provincial police chief Martin Malama told AFP.
Riots also erupted in several slums around the capital during balloting Tuesday as Sata supporters alleged their opponents were trying to steal the vote.
Observers said they had not found any evidence to back up the claims of fraud, but they insisted the violence had not compromised the elections.
But EU monitors accused Banda’s ruling Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD) — which has been in power for 20 years — of having abused state resources, including the media and vehicles, during its campaign.
Although at 74 Sata is showing signs of his age, he tapped into the grievances of the youth and the urban poor who feel left out of the impressive economic growth in Africa’s biggest copper producing nation.
The Patriotic Front has vowed to bring back a 25-percent windfall tax on mining revenues that Banda’s government abolished in 2009.
The increase in copper prices since then — from around $3,000 a tonne to almost $10,000 — and the friendly tax regime have drawn a rush of foreign and investment to Zambia, particular the Chinese.
Sata’s critics fear that this strong-willed firebrand, who has openly expressed his admiration for Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, could prove to be an authoritarian president.
But analysts have said they expect few major policy changes from a man who has muted many of his toughest stances in recent years, despite his populist appeal.