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Zambia gears up for tense economy-dominated vote

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Danny Yenga (2ndR), a parliamentary candidate for the ruling Patriotic Front of the incumbent President Edgar Lungu throws a paigne printed with the picture of the president Lungu during a campaign parade in Lusaka, on August 10, 2021. – Zambians will decide On August 12, 2021, whether to re-elect President Edgar Lungu after the country’s worst economic performance in decades and a crackdown on dissent that has raised fears of unrest in the southern African country. (Photo by MARCO LONGARI / AFP)

Campaigning was winding up Wednesday on the eve of Zambia’s tightly fought presidential and legislative elections dominated by economic hardships.

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President Edgar Lungu, 64, who is seeking re-election after six years in office, was out and about in Lusaka distributing face masks ahead of a final rally slated for late afternoon at a sprawling government complex.

His supporters gathered in a small park outside the complex.

Punching fists in the air, hundreds of Lungu supporters have been marching across central Lusaka, sporting the bright green regalia of his Patriotic Front (PF) colours.

Minivan taxis joined the parade, beeping their horns as jubilant passengers leaned out of windows and clung to the backs of the vehicles, waving flags at onlookers.

All together, 16 candidates are vying for the top job, but the vote is forecast to be a two-horse race between the incumbent and his nemesis, Hakainde Hichilema, who is running for a sixth time backed by an alliance of 10 parties.

Lungu’s campaign has highlighted his push to improve infrastructure in the copper-rich southern African nation and keep mineral wealth in the country.

“We have seen a lot of development in Zambia,” said PF supporter Kanguma Horeb, 36, enthusing over the “many roads, hospitals, flyover bridges (and) schools” that Lungu has built.

But the ambitious infrastructure developments have come at a cost.

Critics accuse Lungu of borrowing unsustainably to fund the infrastructure spending spree, plunging the country into debt and spooking investors.

Hichilema delivered his final address Wednesday, broadcast from the patio of his secluded pale yellow residence surrounded by manicured lawns in southeastern Lusaka.

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“Our country is going into elections… which should result in a change of government,” Hichilema said, standing confidently behind a wooden podium in a suit and light blue shirt unbuttoned at the neck.

“Let the Zambian people decide who will lead them to take them out of this collapsed economy,” he added, denouncing unprecedented hardship.

“Next week we can get into the business of turning around the economy,” he assured. “You deserve better, you have suffered enough.”

He called on the electoral commission to ensure “free and fair” polls.

Hichilema, 59, is facing Lungu, 64, for the third time in Thursday’s vote.

City parades
Both camps put aside coronavirus restrictions as they stepped up efforts to woo voters this week, organising lively parades through different parts of the city.

Hichilema’s United Party for National Development (UPND) party has targeted poorer neighbourhoods, where rising living costs and disillusionment have fuelled growing support for the opposition.

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“To earn a living as a youth has become a hassle,” said 27-year-old Matero resident Teddy Kandundu during a musical motorcade in Lusaka’s densely populated Matero township.

Lungu beat Hichilema by just over 100,000 votes in 2016 and even fewer in a 2015 by-election following the death of ex-leader Michael Sata, and surveys suggest economic hardship has since lowered his support base.

Tension has flared during the campaign, with PF and UPND backers sporadically clashing with machetes, pangas and other home-made weapons.

Three PF supporters have been killed since May, according to the police, prompting Lungu to deploy the military.

Hichilema urged soldiers to “ensure peaceful elections” and not “aid a particular political party”.

The opposition has accused the PF of using coronavirus as an excuse to thwart their events, as well as seeking to rig the election.

Lungu “will outrightly win”, rebutted PF spokesman Antonio Mwanza on Tuesday, denying all allegations of fraud and intimidation.

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