Zambians flocked to vote for a president on Thursday in controversial polls by incumbent Edgar Lungu and longtime rival Hakainde Hichilema as the internet saw restrictions.
After 12 hours of voting, the polls closed at 18.00 (1600 GMT) with several hundred left in queues waiting to vote.
The closely fought presidential election is seen as a test of the country’s democratic merits after a campaign dominated by economic misery and a debt crisis.
Sixteen presidential candidates are vying for the top job, but the most important are Edgar Lungu, 64, and his longtime rival Hakainde Hichilema, a business magnate who is facing elections for the third time.
Hichilema, 59, who is running for the sixth time, is backed by an alliance of 10 parties.
A flagged economy and rising living costs have eroded Lungu’s support base in recent years, surveys show, and the choice could be even tougher than the 2016 polls when he barely scratched a victory over Hichilema.
Lungu, who has been in office for six years and is a lawyer by training, is accused of having borrowed unsustainably, especially from Chinese creditors, to finance a number of infrastructure projects.
Under him, Zambia became the first African country to fail in its sovereign debt since the coronavirus pandemic began, while inflation rose to 24.6 percent in June, the highest level in more than a decade.
Africa’s second-largest copper producer after the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the eighth largest producer in the world, missed another debt repayment this year.
Winding queues of hundreds of people formed before dawn outside the polling stations, hours before the vote would open around densely populated and working-class neighborhoods in Lusaka.
Almost halfway through the day of voting in central Lusaka’s popular township of Mtendere, hundreds of voters patiently waited their turn to vote, chat away or suck on ice lollies or popsicles, sold by a converting supplier.
Elections in Zambia will be “one of the densest votes” in the country’s history
The atmosphere was relaxed and festive, with nearby taverns serving beer while music blew from cars driving in heavy traffic on bumpy roads.
The Internet was partially shut down
But in the afternoon, the internet was partially shut down, with the global observatory NetBlocks confirming that “social media and messaging platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Messenger are now limited”.
Student Edward Musayani, 26, who had been queuing for four hours to vote, said he checked his phone early in the afternoon and discovered that WhatsApp and Facebook had been turned off.
“It’s pretty unfortunate in a democratic dispensation like ours … People should have access to information to make informed decisions,” he said as he waited to vote in Chawama Township.
“You turn off people’s voices and this will affect the election, how people view the election … People will ask why,” he said.
The government had threatened to turn off Internet access if people committed “falsehoods that could destabilize” the election.
“Hoping for change”
Lungu’s critics point to the high cost of living, poverty and unemployment.
In Chamawa township, unemployed schoolteacher Ernest Chimba, 35, “hoped for change … because the cost of living in Zambia has gone really high.”
Tensions flared up ahead of the vote in this South African country with 17 million people.
Supporters of the Lungu Patriotic Front (PF) and Hichilema’s United National Development Party (UPND) fought in the vote, prompting Lungu to order an unparalleled deployment of the army.
The president has also become tougher on disagreements since he took power in 2015 and raised concerns about difficulties if the results are questioned.
About seven million citizens are registered to vote for a president, legislator and local government officials.
The winning candidate must receive more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a second vote. Analysts say, however, that a runoff, which would occur within 37 days after the first round, is unlikely.
Lungu is sure to get more than half a million votes than Hichilema.
Hichilema puts his hopes in despair with Lungu’s administration of the economy to get the presidency.
The opposition has accused the government of trying to rig the vote – accusations PF has rejected.
UN chief Antonio Guterres is following the vote “closely” and urged all candidates “to do their part to create an environment conducive to credible, inclusive and peaceful elections”, said his spokesman Stephane Dujarric.
Analysts fear that tensions could flare up after the vote.
There will “probably be competitions for the results, which can catalyze some concern, especially in the urban areas of Lusaka and Copperbelt”, says Patience Mususa, from the Nordic Africa Institute.
Official results are expected on Sunday.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)