Long queues as voting begins in Zambia

2011-09-20 10:33

Lusaka - Zambians began voting on Tuesday in a closely contested election in Africa's biggest copper producer between incumbent Rupiah Banda and nationalist opposition leader Michael Sata.

Long queues of mainly young voters snaked outside polling stations in the capital, Lusaka, where voting picked up slowly after the official 04:00 GMT start of polling due to technical gliches.

"The polling station should have opened at 06:00, but by 08:00 we're still here and no-one is explaining what's happening," said James Phiri, an unemployed 22-year-old waiting in line at a Lusaka booth.

Campaigning officially ended on Sunday to allow for a 24-hour cooling off period after six-weeks of mudslinging and rhetoric that occasionally touched on the growing clout of foreign mining firms, most notably from China.

The police have said they will be out in force to prevent any violence even though the country of 13 million is not known for political unrest.

An opinion poll published a week ago suggested Banda held a narrow lead over Sata - nicknamed King Cobra on account of his vicious tongue - although an upset was still possible.

A large turnout of young voters, many of whom are unemployed, is likely to play into Sata's hands.

Patriotic Front (PF) leader Sata lost to Banda by just 35 000 votes, or 2% of the electorate, in a 2008 run-off. Banda appeared on state television on Sunday to announce that any troublemakers would be arrested.

Economic growth

Banda, a former diplomat, has won accolades abroad for opening up the country to international investment, especially from China, and providing clear regulations on operations that have helped keep the playing field level.

Sata, whose long and varied career includes work in British car assembly plants, has been a vocal critic of Asian mining investment, but toned it down in an interview with Reuters on Friday, saying he would keep Zambia's strong diplomatic and commercial ties with Beijing.

Chinese firms have become major players in the former British colony's $13bn economy, with total investments by the end of 2010 topping $2bn, according to Chinese embassy data.

Banda's Movement for Multi-Party Democracy, which has run the nation since the end of one-party rule in 1991, claims most of its support in the countryside where farmers have benefited from a hugely successful agricultural subsidy scheme.

Sata's strength is in the capital, Lusaka, and the northern Copper Belt, where many people complain about receiving meagre returns from more than five years of strong economic growth.

Banda and Sata have pledged hefty spending to woo voters by building up woefully inadequate infrastructure, raising concerns about elevated government spending at a time of potential weakness in the price of copper, Zambia's economic mainstay.

An alliance between Sata and another opposition party, the UPND, crumbled this year, improving the chances of a new full five-year term for Banda, who moved into the presidency after the 2008 death of his predecessor, Levy Mwanawasa.