LUSAKA, Sep 20 – Zambians voted on Tuesday in national elections to choose their leaders for the next five years, with President Rupiah Banda facing a tough challenge from his long-time rival Michael Sata.
Hundreds of people lined up to vote as polling stations opened at 6am (0400 GMT), some having arrived hours earlier to cast their ballots in the presidential, parliamentary and local elections.
Banda, who has presided over one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa – 7.6 percent last year and 6.4 the year before according to the IMF – has campaigned for his Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) on a platform of growth and development.
Sata, a fiery nationalist from the main opposition Patriotic Front, whose biting rhetoric earned him the nickname “King Cobra”, has attacked Banda as soft on corruption and criticised him for failing to do more to spread the wealth in a country where 64 percent of people still live on less than two dollars a day.
The PF says if elected they will crack down on corruption and bring back a windfall tax on mining firms in a bid to help more Zambians benefit from the country’s huge copper reserves.
“We’re anxious, we want to vote,” said JJ Mulenga, a 58-year-old retired army officer, who was one of the first in line at the polling station in Bauleni, a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of the capital, Lusaka.
“I want to change the government. The previous government, Banda, did literally nothing,” said Mulenga, who arrived at 3:30 am for the vote.
“Mostly they are the young ones here. They have shown that they feel like voting. They’ve got no work,” he said. “They would like to change the government to see if they can be helped to find employment and education.”
But Agnes Ngoma, 57, who has a farm nearby, said Banda’s economic stewardship should be rewarded.
“I think the current government has performed very well, exceeded our expectations,” she said. “There’s a lot of infrastructure that’s been built – roads, hospitals, schools. The economy is booming.”
Zambia last year was the largest copper producer in Africa and the seventh-largest in the world.
About 5.2 million voters are registered to take part in the polls, which will decide the country’s leadership for the next five years.
The last contest between the two rivals – a 2008 special election to fill the remainder of late president Levy Mwanawasa’s term after his death – was decided by just two percentage points.
Sata alleged the election was rigged, and his supporters rioted for days after.
National police inspector general Francis Kabonde told journalists Monday that as a security precaution he had ordered his officers to arrest anyone found in public with a slingshot, axe or other potential weapon.
Banda said any acts of violence or intimidation around Tuesday’s vote will be met with arrest and prosecution.
“I have ordered the police to arrest and prosecute all those who will offend,” he said on national television on the eve of the vote.
Despite Sata’s fiery rhetoric, analysts expect few major policy shifts if he wins. Once known for his fierce criticism of China’s growing presence in the country, Sata has more recently said that he would work with foreign investors, including Beijing.