Thursday, October 30, 2008

Zambians Vote For New President

Zambians vote for new president

LUSAKA (AFP) - - Zambians are voting on Thursday in a tight presidential election as opposition leader Michael Sata accused police of scheming with poll officials to "rig" the result and warned again he would not accept defeat.

Sata is locked in a neck-and-neck race against acting President Rupiah Banda, in a contest to replace president Levy Mwanawasa who died in August after a stroke. The winner will ride out the end of Mwanawasa's term till 2011.

The 71-year-old opposition leader, known as "King Cobra" for his stinging rhetoric, told reporters after casting his ballot that Banda's Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) could not win without cheating.

"There is no way MMD can win," Sata said. "We know the police, the electoral commission are all involved with trying to rig."

Asked if he would accept a loss, he said: "No."

Sata has warned since last week he will not accept defeat if he suspected vote fraud, and his supporters scuffled with police Monday in the tourist town of Livingstone after they tried to stop two trucks carrying election materials.

The activists believed the trucks were carrying ballots pre-marked for Banda, but election officials said they were transporting lanterns for polling stations.

Fearing violence after the polls close at 6:00 pm (1600 GMT), police and army commanders put their forces on high alert. The first official results are expected by Friday morning.

Anil Gayan, head of the African Union observer team, said voting was going slowly but smoothly.

"We hear lots of things, but we have not seen any visible sign of rigging," he told AFP.

But the risk of violence weighed on the minds of voters, after Sata's supporters rioted for days in Lusaka following his 2006 defeat to Mwanawasa.

"I've been on the ground, and three-quarters of people are saying they want change. The violence may come up if the results go in favour of the ruling party," said Barry Lukwesa, an unemployed 25-year-old, as he waited to vote.

Zambia's founding president Kenneth Kaunda, who lost power to the MMD in 1991 but has endorsed Banda, urged calm.

"Let us maintain peace after elections. Peace is very important," Kaunda said after casting his ballot.

Banda has vowed not to allow any disruptions to the election.

"No-one will be allowed to upset the peace in the country. Until the election results are announced, I am still president and will not allow it," Banda, a 71-year-old a former diplomat, told 10,000 supporters at his final rally Wednesday.

He promised to follow in the footsteps of Mwanawasa, who won plaudits in the West for his economic record and his willingness to criticise President Robert Mugabe in neighbouring Zimbabwe.

"I will continue the policies and programmes that Mwanawasa started. I will complete them and add more," said Banda, candidate of the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD).

Sata has campaigned on a promise to transform Zambia within 90 days of taking office, by forcing foreign firms to hand 25 percent stakes to local investors and embarking on social spending to provide better homes and jobs.

Banda is a western-educated economist and experienced diplomat. Sata has had little formal education but is a shrewd political operator who rose from the ranks to become a key minister in earlier governments.

Two other candidates are potential spoilers for either side.

UPND (United Party for National Development) leader Hakainde Hichilema, 46, is seen as a dark horse contender, while former vice president Godfrey Miyanda of the Heritage Party is seen as an also-ran.

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