Millions of Zambians cast ballots on Thursday in presidential and parliamentary elections as the southern African country battles with a debt-riddled economy.
Police and troops are stationed at polling stations across the country for a vote that will be closely watched by international observers from the EU and the African Union.
Zambia’s electoral commission has said all systems are in place to ensure free, transparent and fair polls on Thursday.
Incumbent president Edgar Lungu is hoping to win a second term on the back of billions of dollars of Chinese investment in Zambia, Africa’s second-biggest copper producer.
“We are a winning team,” he said of his Patriotic Front party.
He urged people “to come and vote and go back home and stay and wait patiently and peacefully for the outcome.”
Who is Lungu’s main challenger?
The 64-year-old will go up against his long-time political foe, business tycoon Hakainde Hichilema, for a third time.
Hilchilema, who leads the United Party for National Development, argues Lungu has locked Zambia into a debt trap by accepting loans from Beijing.
“Poverty is written everywhere. Everybody is hurting. Zambia is at a crossroads,” the 59-year-old told reporters on the eve of the election, touting his experience in the financial sector.
Crunch talks about a debt restructuring are expected to resume after the election with the International Monetary Fund, a Washington D.C.-based institution seen as a financial crisis firefighter.
UN estimates from 2020 say that nearly 2.3 million of Zambia’s 17 million people are threatened by food shortages.
It comes after a 2019 drought, which was the worst the country has seen in 35 years.
Supporters of both candidates have clashed in recent weeks, prompting the military to be deployed.
Police and troops have been deployed to maintain order during the vote. The result is expected within 72 hours
First time voter Ben Mulenga, 19, turned out to cast his ballot at a polling station in the Kabwata suburb of Lusaka.
“The things that are happening in our country, including the bad state of the economy and the high levels of unemployment need to be addressed,” Mulenga told Reuters news agency.
“As you can see, we are suffering. We are in financial crisis. No doubt I want to make a difference,” Cassidy Yumbe, a 41-year-old driver, told Reuters.
What is the economic situation in Zambia?
The country became the first African country during the coronavirus pandemic to default on its sovereign debt in November last year, failing to pay $42.5 million in interest.
State-backed Chinese lenders hold roughly a quarter of Zambia’s $12 billion foreign-owned debt.
China has plowed billions of dollars into projects that span the mining, manufacturing, infrastructure and agriculture sectors.
The International Monetary Fund says it will be among the continent’s slowest growing economies this year.
Much of sub-Saharan Africa suffers from a lack of access to coronavirus vaccines, further hampering growth.
Zambia has been plagued in by economic and financial difficulties for years after a drop in copper prices.
Inflation soared to nearly 25% in June, its highest level for more than a decade.
jf/wmr (AP, AFP)