Zambians began voting in a presidential election called after the October death of Michael Sata, who was known as “King Cobra,” in a contest that analysts say is too close to call.
While there were no independent opinion polls, the ruling Patriotic Front’s Edgar Lungu and Hakainde Hichilema, leader of the opposition United Party for National Development, are seen as the front-runners among 11 candidates. The electoral commission may announce results on Jan. 23, depending on the impact of heavy rains in some parts of the country, the body’s director of elections, Priscilla Isaacs, said in an interview.
Whoever wins will face slowing economic growth in Africa’s second-biggest copper producer amid a drop in metal prices and a currency that was the continent’s second-worst performer last year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Government debt has also increased since 2012 after the sale of two Eurobonds, helping to fund a budget deficit the Finance Ministry projected at 5.4 percent in 2014.
“It’s still going to be a tight race, but the PF are likely going to win,” Sinethemba Zonke, a Johannesburg-based consultant at africapractice, said by phone on Monday. “They are the incumbent party, and also they’ve managed to cement the perception that Lungu was anointed” by Sata.
Photographer: Moses Mwape/AP Photo
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The kwacha retreated as much as 2.2 percent, and traded 2 percent weaker at 6.56 per dollar at 12:01 in Lusaka.
Lungu, the 58-year-old lawyer who serves as justice and defense minister, has pledged to continue Sata’s policies designed to uplift the poor and an infrastructure program centered on building more than 8,000 kilometers (about 5,000 miles) of roads across the nation of 15 million people.
Hichilema, 52, an economist and businessman commonly known as HH, has portrayed himself as an economic manager who will create jobs.
Polls opened at 6 a.m. and are scheduled to close 12 hours later.
Hichilema has capitalized on the leadership battle in the PF triggered by Sata’s death. With his ethnic base centered among the Tonga people of Southern province, it’s unclear if he can win enough national support to beat Lungu, whose party traditionally has strong backing from the Bemba people, the nation’s biggest ethnic group.
While the International Monetary Fund said the economy grew 5.5 percent in 2014, its slowest rate in 12 years, Finance Minister Alexander Chikwanda put growth at 6 percent last year, the seventh-fastest expansion in sub-Saharan Africa. Still, almost two-thirds of Zambia’s 15 million people live on less than $1.25 a day, according to the World Bank.
Prices in London for copper, which accounts for more than two-thirds of Zambia’s foreign-exchange earnings, have fallen 22 percent from 2014 highs to $5,548 per metric ton this month, a near six-year low.
Zambia ranked 15th out of 47 sub-Saharan African countries surveyed by Transparency International in its 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index, and 85th out of 174 countries worldwide.
The election is “going according to plan” despite the rains, acting President Guy Scott said by phone from Lusaka, the capital. “I think it’s been reasonable.”
This is the first time Zambia held presidential elections during the wet season since 2001, and that may benefit Hichilema if apathetic PF supporters don’t vote, Zonke said.
“The weather is so bad,” Rose Zulu, 47, said as heavy showers pelted the steel school roof over her head in Lusaka. “People cannot move in the rains. They will rather stay home and wait for the rain to finish, but we don’t know that it will.”
The winner will face the prospect of Barrick Gold Corp. (ABX), the biggest producer of the metal, putting its Lumwana mine under care and maintenance. The company announced the move in December after the government introduced a new system that tripled royalties for the operation while removing income tax. Miners including Glencore Plc (GLEN) and Vedanta Resources (VED) and First Quantum Minerals Ltd. (FM) also operate in the country.
While Lungu has largely avoided the subject, Hichilema has said he’ll scrap the new system and introduce one that ensures mines pay fair taxes.
“HH would be likely to be the more successful candidate,” Martin Rupiya, who heads the Management of Democratic Elections in Africa program at Pretoria-based University of South Africa, said by phone. “I think he’s going to be more successful than Edgar Lungu. It’s very close.”
Zambia called the election after Sata died in London. His death sparked a bitter succession battle in the PF, which culminated when a high court declared Lungu the party’s presidential candidate.
The main parliamentary opposition Movement for Multiparty Democracy, which Sata unseated in the last elections in 2011, suffered its own leadership fight after former president Rupiah Banda tried to stand as the party’s presidential candidate. The supreme court ruled former televangelist Nevers Mumba was the legitimate leader, and Banda later endorsed Lungu.
The party splits benefited Hichilema, with some lawmakers from each party endorsing him.
Scott, who has acted as president since Sata’s death, wasn’t able to stand as a candidate because his parents were born in the U.K.
“It will be extremely close,” Neo Simutanyi, director at the Lusaka-based Centre for Policy Dialogue, said by phone Monday. “I think most people are underestimating the potential for an opposition win.”