ZAMBIA’S ruling party candidate Edgar Lungu was Thursday leading in the race to replace the late president Michael Sata, authorities said as voting continued in parts of the country.
According to the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ), ballots from 80 of the 150 constituencies had been counted by late Thursday morning.
Lungu, the ruling Patriotic Front’s candidate, was leading with 533,613 votes, closely followed by opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development with 474,076.
Authorities said they had faced “unprecedented challenges” in delivering voting material to some remote areas in the copper-rich southern African nation.
Boats and ox-wagons had to be deployed to get ballot papers to parts hit by torrential rains.
Hichilema is seen as the main challenger to the PF’s Lungu in the contest to replace Sata, who died in office last October of an undisclosed illness.
On Wednesday, police fired tear gas to disperse a group of Hichilema’s supporters who had gathered outside a counting centre in the capital waiting for results.
Several people were arrested.
Hichilema, a wealthy businessman, cried fraud on the first day of voting, complaining about alleged acts of violence by ruling PF supporters and the extension of voting.
But the regional Southern African Development Community (SADC) mission has praised the vote as “reflecting the will of the people of Zambia”, saying it was “peaceful, transparent, free and fair”.
Election authorities were unable to give a date for the announcement of the final results.
However, while observers are already lauding the vote, the low turnout may give a further tailwind to calls for electoral reform to allow running mates to complete presidential terms in the event of the incumbent failing to do so.
Two Zambian presidents have died in office, leading to special elections as provided by the constitution.
The winner of the January 20 election will be in office for less than two years, before Zambians again head for the voting booths in a general election next year.
That means the southern African country will have held eight elections since the advent of multiparty democracy in the early 1990s, the first vote of which saw long-serving president Kenneth Kaunda dislodged from power. It is a record many other African countries would be proud of—Eritrea for example has never voted in the same period.
Observers project less than half—some say just a third—of eligible voters turned out on January 20 when the balloting started, with voting extended into a second and now third day due to logistical issues.
Voter fatigue with the high number of elections has been a factor, but there have also been other reasons offered.
The country is experiencing heavy rains, a boon for farmers in the country where agriculture is the main employer, but which provided a challenge to election organisers and many voters.
Some non-governmental organisations also cited minor incidences of electoral-related violence during the campaigns as having put off some voters.
But a successful vote will add to Zambia’s proud reputation for stability, with major cities back to business as usual.
The main challenge will be whether the losing side will accept the outcome, and in the case of a dispute, what course they would choose.
An under-reported development will have been the decline of the hitherto main opposition party, the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) on which the country’s most popular president of modern times, Levy Mwanawasa, rode to power in 2001 elections.
Fredrick Chiluba also dislodged Kaunda on an MMD ticket, but quickly frittered popular support due to a graft-ravaged regime.
Infighting saw ex-president Rupiah Banda, who had sought to run again on its ticket, decamp to Lungu’s side, while its legislators also plumped for other candidates, leaving party president Nevers Mumba to lead the charge with dismal results.
Mwanawasa’s widow Maureen has been batting for Hichilema’s United Party for National Development (UPND).
The election has been painted as pitting continuity against change, but Michael Sata’s pro-poor policies will have garnered his party considerable traction.
The role of social media has also been an emerging factor, with ECZ chair Priscilla Isaacs pleading with users to be responsible in its use, saying only the official results from the poll manager will count.
Many Zambians Mail & Guardian Africa talked to agreed the ECZ has run a good ship despite funding challenges, and a successful conclusion of the electoral process will only put a further shine in the country’s political shine, a feat that has so far eluded other African countries—up north in DR Congo there are already concerns about Joseph Kabila’s perceived third-term bid and this week has seen violent protests there.
Riot police opened fire on protesters in the DRC Thursday in a new bout of violence as the Senate was set to vote on a controversial bill that would extend Kabila’s rule.
An international rights group said 42 people had been killed in three days of anti-Kabila demonstrations in Kinshasa, but the government angrily challenged the figures and said 12 people had died.
Thursday’s violence erupted in the eastern city of Goma—about 1,500 kilometres (900 miles) from the capital—when riot police fired on groups of several hundred demonstrators, an AFP correspondent said.
Protesters are rising up against legislation that would enable Kabila, who has been in power in the troubled country for 14 years, to extend his term beyond 2016 when his second mandate ends.
On Wednesday, the popular leader of the Catholic Church weighed into the turmoil, giving his backing to protesters.
“We denounce these actions which have caused death and we are launching this plea: stop killing your people,” Archbishop Laurent Monswengo said.
He called on the people of the giant central African country to use “all legal and peaceful” means to oppose the law change.
On Wednesday, dozens of students at Kinshasa university shouted “Kabila get out!” as police tried to block the demonstration
Kabila’s opponents believe he wants to prolong his mandate by making presidential and parliamentary elections contingent on a new electoral roll, after a census across the vast country set to begin this year.
The government has acknowledged that the census could delay elections due at the end of 2016, but regional analysts and diplomats have estimated the process could take up to three years.
Speaking from Belgium on Tuesday, DR Congo opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi called on the Congolese people to force a “dying regime” from power.
Tshisekedi, 82, who is in Europe recovering from illness, has been in opposition since the 1960s, previously taking on the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko as well as Kabila’s father Laurent Kabila.
The unrest is the latest upheaval to rock the mineral-rich country which has been plagued by wars and weakened by decades of misrule.
Kabila, now 43, came to power in January 2001 when politicians rushed to make the young soldier head of state after the assassination of his father.
He was returned to office in 2006 and began his second five-year constitutional term after a hotly disputed vote in 2011.
Many African presidents have tried, and often succeeded, to stay in power by rewriting their countries’ constitutions to get rid of limits on presidential terms.
Last year, Burkina Faso’s president Blaise Compaore was chased from power when he tried to change the constitution to extend his mandate.
-Additional reporting and Congo story by AFP..