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By HILLEL ITALIE AP National Writer
LUSAKA, Zambia (AP) — Zambians are voting in tense elections that the president and his main rival have said are a test of the southern African country’s reputation as a stable democracy.
Polling began early Thursday morning in the presidential and legislative elections at more than 12,000 polling stations, including in prisons. More than 7 million people, or over 83% of eligible voters, have registered to vote, according to the Electoral Commission of Zambia.
President Edgar Lungu is counting winning votes on his record of infrastructure developments, mainly Chinese-funded, and the distribution of agricultural inputs such as seeds and fertilizers to millions of farmers. However, his chances could be hurt by a debilitating economic tailspin. Lungu, who came to power in 2015, cast his ballot in the capital, Lusaka.
“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.”
“I hear some politicians are advocating for people to hang around the polling centers, that will just bring chaos,” said Lungu. “I have voted. I am going home, and will listen to the radio, newspapers, television and wait for the results to be declared. That’s what a good citizen does. Please don’t hang around polling stations, you will just cause unnecessary anarchy.”
Rival seeks presidency
His main rival is 59-year old Hakainde Hichilema and this will be a sixth shot at the presidency in the country of 18 million people. He touts his background as a businessman, saying he will be able to attract investment, better manage the stuttering economy and eradicate alleged corruption.
When Hichilema voted in Lusaka, excited voters abandoned their spots to see him and many chanted: “We want change! We want change!”
Speaking to the press after voting, Hichilema said, “You can see the mood. … People want change, you can see it. The important thing is that the decision of who becomes president, who will lead this country, must be determined by the Zambian people. The voters, not the people who count the votes.”
The electoral commission earlier this week said although officially voting ends at 6 p.m., everyone in the line before that time will be allowed to cast their votes.
Analysts say like previous contests between the two men in 2015 and 2016, this vote will be closely fought.
Violence flared between supporters of Lungu’s PF party and Hichilema’s United Party for National Development during a heated campaign period.
Both Lungu and Hichilema have urged citizens to vote peacefully.
But it is what happens after the vote that has many people worried. Results will be announced on Sunday at the latest, the electoral commission said earlier this week.
In total, 16 candidates are vying for the presidency. Zambia will go for a second-round vote if none of the candidates get more than 50% of the votes cast.
More than 800 candidates will battle for the elected 156 seats in the National Assembly. Mayoral and council seats are also up for election.