Zambia counts votes from close election as army reinforced
Vote counting was underway in Zambia on Friday after a hard-fought general election that saw sporadic clashes and troop reinforcements dispatched to three provinces, and restrictions to social media access.
The ballot is expected to be the tightest yet in the third successive standoff between President Edgar Lungu, 64, and veteran opposition candidate Hakainde Hichilema, 59.
Final consolidated results are expected to be declared by end of the day on Sunday, although Lungu’s party hinted it was heading for victory.
Thursday’s vote presented a test of democracy in the usually peaceful southern African nation country of more than 17 million people.
Rising living costs appear to have sapped support for Lungu, who is accused of growing increasingly iron-fisted since taking office in 2015.
Hichilema is vying for the top job for the sixth time, this time with the backing of 10 opposition parties.
Violence occurred in North-Western province, a Hichilema stronghold, where two people including a chairman of the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) party were killed, Lungu announced late on Thursday.
He placed the blame on Hichilema’s United Party for National Development (UPND), but the opposition party has distanced itself from the case, calling it a “distraction” tactic.
The PF also alleges that some of its agents were beaten and chased from polling stations in Southern province.
Social media access restricted
Lungu, who deployed the military following pre-election clashes, reinforced the troop presence in those two provinces and in Western province.
He has already said that the election-day violence “effectively rendered the elections in… three provinces not free and fair”.
Despite this warning, PF chief Davies Mwila said that the party’s own calculation of votes cast in various polling stations “show that President Edgar Lungu is in the lead”.
“We are confident that we shall carry the day,” he said.
Social media access has been restricted since Hichilema cast his vote in Lusaka on Thursday afternoon.
But late on Friday the High Court in Lusaka ordered the country’s communications authority to restore access to WhatsApp, Facebook Instagram and Messenger.
Most shops were shut in the capital on Friday where a burning tyre barricade was seen along a highway.
Police and soldiers patrolled the quiet streets of the capital on Friday, which was declared a public holiday .
A group of soldiers was seen forcing informal vendors to pack up their stalls and ordering passersby to sweep litter from the street, and chased away onlookers taking pictures with their smartphones.
Parliamentary and local government elections took place at the same time as the presidential ballot.
Long queues outside polling stations on Thursday meant that voting continued long after the official closing time of 6 pm (1600 GMT) in some cases, the last ballot was cast nine hours afterwards.
More than seven million people were registered to vote, and the electoral commission said turnout was high, without giving a figure.
The outcome is expected to hinge on results in Lusaka, a bustling city of more than 3.3 million people, and in the central Copperbelt province — key to the economy in Africa’s second-largest copper producer.
Hichilema, who is running against Lungu for the third time, only lost by around 100,000 votes in 2016.
Poll watchers have warned of possible unrest when the results are announced.
“The real test will be in the counting process” and whether Lungu will accept possible eventual defeat, said independent Zambian political economist Trevor Simumba.
Although violence has flared at past elections, all of Zambia’s transitions of power have been peaceful since the adoption of multi-party democracy in 1990.