Zambians started voting on Thursday in an election showdown between President Edgar Lungu and main opposition rival Hakainde Hichilema that looks too tight to call and comes amid mounting debt and a flagging economy.
Polls opened at 6 a.m. (0400 GMT) with long queues seen at voting booths in the capital Lusaka, which could point to a huge turnout in Africa’s second biggest copper producer.
The electoral agency says it expects to declare a winner within 72 hours after polls close.
Some voters walked to polling stations with chairs, a Reuters witness said, while others shared pictures of long queues on Twitter.
At a voting station in the Kabwata suburb of Lusaka, first time voter Ben Mulenga, 19, braved the early morning cold and arrived two and half hours before voting started because he anticipated long queues.
“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,” said Mulenga, a student at the University of Zambia.
Zambia became the continent’s first country during the coronavirus pandemic to default on its sovereign debt in November.
Lungu was among the earliest voters. Wearing a black leather jacket, a white face mask and accompanied by his wife, he waved to a cheering crowd as he left in his motorcade.
“We are winning, otherwise I wouldn’t have been in the race if we were not winning,” Lungu told reporters shortly after voting in Chawama township in Lusaka.
Some 54% of registered voters are 34 or younger, statistics from the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) show.
That could help Hichilema, who is facing Lungu for the third time and has placed the economy front and centre of his campaign, political analysts said.
Zambia’s economy will be among the continent’s slowest growing economies this year, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates.
“As you can see we are suffering. Financially we are in crisis, definitely I want to make a change,” said Cassidy Yumbe, a 41-year-old driver and father of four as he waited to vote.
Zambia owes in excess of $12 billion to external creditors and spends 30%-40% of its revenues on interest payments on its debt, credit rating firm S&P Global estimates.
In office since 2015, 64-year-old Lungu narrowly defeated Hichilema, the CEO of an accountancy firm before entering politics, in a disputed election the following year.
The president has touted the new road, airport and energy projects he has overseen as laying the groundwork for economic development and growth.
His push for greater state control over the mining sector – an approach that has sparked fears of resource nationalism among international investors – will create jobs, he says.
But so far his debt-financed infrastructure splurge has failed to pay economic dividends, and unemployment remains high.
That has left him open to attack from Hichilema, who says the debt cost is too high and is frustrating development in the country of 18 million people.