Zambia Votes After Violence Mars Close-Run Presidential Race

LUSAKA, Zambia, Capital Markets in Africa: Zambians began voting Thursday in elections that are set to be a rematch of last year’s neck-and-neck contest between President Edgar Lungu and his main rival, Hakainde Hichilema, following a violence-marred campaign.

Less than 28,000 votes separated the two men the last time they squared off in a snap poll 19 months ago, after President Michael Sata died in office. While incumbent Lungu, 59, has enjoyed blanket state-media coverage of his campaign, an economic slump and the defection of several high-profile members of the ruling Patriotic Front to Hichilema’s United Party for National Development have reduced his odds of winning a full five-year term.

 “It’s too close to call,” Alex Ngoma, a politics lecturer at the University of Zambia in the capital, Lusaka, said by phone on Wednesday. “The UPND seems to have gained a lot of ground in the ruling party’s strongholds.”

Lungu and Hichilema, 54, are among nine candidates running for the presidency of Africa’s second-biggest copper producer. Voters will also select a 160-member parliament, mayors and local councilors. The new administration will have to try to revive an economy that’s growing at its slowest pace since 1998 due to power shortages and a slump in the price of copper, which accounts for more than 70 percent of export earnings. It also faces negotiating a bail-out package from the International Monetary Fund to help shore up the state’s coffers.

While Hichilema has traditionally taken a more business-friendly stance than Lungu, whoever wins the election is likely to seek to attract more investment in the mining industry and improve the power supply, London-based risk advisers PGI Intelligence said by e-mail.

Zambia’s kwacha has weakened 26 percent against the dollar over the past 12 months, the fourth-worst performance in Africa, pushing the inflation rate to more than 20 percent. Yields on Zambia’s $1 billion of bonds due April 2024 dropped 13 basis points on Wednesday to 9.43 percent, the lowest on a closing basis in a year.

Vote Count
The polls opened at 6 a.m. and are due to close at 6 p.m., with 6.7 million people having registered to vote in the country of 16.2 million. Long lines formed outside polling stations in Lusaka ahead of the start of the vote. The Electoral Commission of Zambia expects to begin announcing results Friday morning and complete the process by Sunday. A presidential candidate must win more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff.

“I’m looking at the cost of living,” said Frederick Kabwita, a 43-year-old shop owner who voted in Lusaka’s Northmead suburb. “Zambia has abundant natural resources, but all because of our leaders and their selfishness, Zambia remains a third-world country. I hope new leaders are going be magnanimous and bring people together.”

As many as six people have died during the campaign, and the electoral commission says there have been attempts to stop the delivery of voting materials to polling stations.

Sabotage Acts
“This can only be described as an act of sabotage aimed at disrupting the electoral process,” Esau Chulu, the commission’s chairman, said in an Aug. 9 speech in Lusaka.

Lungu, a lawyer, has highlighted progress in improving infrastructure, education and health care during his campaign — projects that have helped boost the budget deficit to more than 10 percent — and pledged to diversify the economy away from copper if re-elected.

The PF’s internal polls show Lungu winning 58 percent of the vote in the first round, his spokesman and adviser, Amos Chanda, said in an interview on Wednesday. Election violence has been contained, with only a single incident in the past three weeks, and peace will prevail after the vote whatever the outcome, he said.

“Violence cannot and should not be the currency of politics,” Lungu said in an address on state television late Wednesday. “I implore all citizens to remain peaceful.”

Promote Investment
Hichilema, an economist and businessman widely known by his initials HH, has failed in four previous bids for the presidency. He’s pledged to revive growth, promote investment and ensure state funds are better spent.

Hichilema’s backers include several ex-PF heavyweights, such as Guy Scott, who acted briefly as president after Sata’s death, and Mulenga Sata, the late president’s son. His running mate is Geoffrey Mwamba, an ex-defense minister from the north of the country who has helped rally support from the Bemba, the country’s largest ethnic group.

“Regardless of the outcome, the successful candidate will need to take a hard line with regard to economic policy reforms,” Rand Merchant Bank analysts Celeste Fauconnier, Nema Ramkhelawan-Bhana and Neville Mandimika said in an e-mailed note on Thursday. “We see a runoff as the most likely outcome of the election which tends to favour the incumbent.”

Source: Bloomberg Business News

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