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Zambian opposition leader ahead in presidential race

Results from 15 of the country’s 156 constituencies gave opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema 171,604 votes versus the 110,178 garnered by President Edgar Lungu, who is running for a second five-year term.

Opposition UPND party's presidential candidate Hakainde Hichilema casts his ballot in Lusaka, Zambia, on August 12, 2021.
Opposition UPND party’s presidential candidate Hakainde Hichilema casts his ballot in Lusaka, Zambia, on August 12, 2021. (Reuters)

Early election results in Zambia show opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema ahead in a tight, tense race while the national Electoral Commission has urged people to wait for the final official results to avoid any unrest.

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The first set of results announced on Saturday from 15 of the country’s 156 constituencies has Hichilema in the lead with 171,604 votes to President Edgar Lungu’s 110,178.

The commission said it will update the results as votes from the constituencies are tabulated and expects to announce the final results by Monday.

An overwhelming turnout, particularly by youthful Zambians who make up a majority of registered voters, saw long lines in front of polling stations on election day, Thursday.

Unprecedented turnout

Many polling stations had to close late to accommodate the voters, said the electoral commission, which noted that the large turnout was unprecedented.

Sixteen candidates ran for president and some of them have already conceded defeat and congratulated Hichilema on victory, citing results posted at polling centers where votes were counted.

Hichilema’s United Party for National Development forecast that he would win, also based on the results from polling centers.

However, Lungu’s Patriotic Front claimed that the incumbent would win.

Votes in Zambia are counted at polling centres and then posted for the public to see. The results from the polling stations are sent to the national election centre in the capital, Lusaka, where the final results are announced.

Zambia’s military was on the streets of the capital, Lusaka, and in other parts of the country on Saturday. President Edgar Lungu deployed the military ahead of the election saying it was to curb some outbreaks of violence.

He ordered more troops to be deployed in some restive parts of the country after there were two killings on election day.

The opposition alleges the troop rollout is an intimidation tactic by Lungu.

Fear of instability

Zambia’s newspapers showed the divide.

“HH gets it” and “HH takes lead” trumpeted the banner headlines of two privately-owned newspapers, using the initials of Hichilema’s name, as his supporters call him.

In contrast, the state-run Zambia Daily Mail ran with the headline “Lungu set for victory-PF,” citing an official of the ruling Patriotic Front party.

In the capital Lusaka, reaction to the early results was largely muted as people went about their daily morning chores and others set up market stalls to sell live chickens, vegetables, and charcoal.

Others were seen pulling down Lungu’s posters that are plastered all over the city, which was being swept by dry, dusty winds Saturday.

Lungu won power in 2015 in a snap election after the previous president, Michael Sata, died in office. Lungu narrowly defeated Hichilema, whom he again beat with a small margin for a full term in 2016. Hichilema alleged fraud in both polls and has warned of rigging in these elections.

Critics accuse Lungu of trying to reverse Zambia’s record of holding regular, credible elections and peaceful transfers of power since 1991 when the country returned to multi-party democracy after being a one-party state for more than two decades.

Lungu’s party on Friday said it had written to the electoral commission, also alleging the election wasn’t free and fair, citing alleged violence by the opposition.

Both Lungu and Hichilema have expressed concern that the election could result in post-election instability.

Nic Cheeseman, professor of politics at the University of Birmingham, told The Associated Press that the results from the 15 constituencies showed turnout was 15 percent higher than in the 2016 polls.

Cheeseman, who is in Zambia to see the elections, said the early results show a “big swing” in favour of Hichilema’s UNDP party, which garnered 10 percent more of the vote in the 15 constituencies than in 2016 and that the party had increased its vote share in 11 of the announced constituencies. He said the trend is likely to continue in the majority of results yet to be announced.

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