5.2m to vote in Zambia's tight election

2011-09-20 09:29

Lusaka - About 5.2 million registered Zambian voters head to the polls Tuesday for elections pitting President Rupiah Banda's pro-business policies against opposition leader Michael Sata's fiery nationalism.

The race has been described by analysts as too close to call.

Banda has presided over one of Africa's fastest-growing economies thanks largely to the rising international price of copper, Zambia's main export.

But Sata has sought to turn the incumbent's economic track record against him by arguing that Banda has let foreign investors reap the rewards of the copper boom while ordinary Zambians continue living in poverty.

The election will decide the country's leadership for the next five years, but is unlikely to bring major policy shifts if Sata's Patriotic Front (PF) defeats the ruling Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD), in power for the past 20 years.

Political analyst Phineas Bbaala of the University of Zambia predicted the race will be tight, with the winner claiming less than 50% of the overall vote.

"Most of the voters around the country are in a deep state of psychological discontent, and as a result, we're likely to see an opposition which will poll more votes than the ruling party," Bbaala told AFP.

"But because the opposition vote will be fragmented, it is most likely that the MMD will win."

He said the PF's chances diminished when its alliance with the minority United Party for National Development (UPND) collapsed in March amid a leadership squabble.


A PF win would only be the second transfer of power in Zambia since the country gained independence from Britain in 1964.

The PF says if elected it will bring back a 25% windfall tax on mining revenues that Banda's government abolished in 2009.

The increase in copper prices since then - from about $3 000 a ton to almost $10 000 - and the friendly tax regime have drawn a rush of foreign and especially Chinese investment to Zambia.

Thanks largely to the mining boom, Banda has presided over an economy that grew 7.6% last year and 6.4% the year before.

But the PF says Banda has failed to spread the wealth, with 64% of Zambia's 12.9 million people still living on less than $2 a day.

Sata has also attacked his rival's record on corruption, after Banda's government refused to appeal the corruption acquittal of former president Frederick Chiluba, accused of embezzling $500 000 during his 1991 to 2002 presidency.

Sata, whose biting rhetoric has earned him the nickname "King Cobra", faces image problems of his own in his fourth presidential bid.

Critics fear the strong-fisted firebrand, who made his name bashing the growing Chinese presence in the country, would make an authoritarian president.

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.

Voting stations open at 04:00GMT and close at 16:00GMT, according to the electoral commission.