Zambians have formed long lines at polling stations in a tight election race for president and parliament that has been marred by violence between rival factions.
There were no early reports of unrest during voting in a country whose peaceful transitions of power in the past have been held up as a democratic model in Africa.
However, officials were anticipating tension after the close of voting and the final announcement of results: A winner must get more than 50 per cent of the vote to avoid a runoff election.
“I came early here so that I can vote, then go and rest since it’s a holiday today,” said Chanda Chileshe, a Zambian voter at a polling station.
President Edgar Lungu of the ruling PF (Patriotic Front) party faces businessman Hakainde Hichilema of the opposition UPND (United Party for National Development). Lungu won the last election with 48 per cent of votes, taking office in early 2015 after the death of President Michael Sata. Hichilema, a close second in that election, called the vote a sham.
Allegations of election irregularities have also dogged the current campaign, which was suspended for 10 days last month in the capital, Lusaka, after a supporter of Hichilema’s party was shot dead amid a protest over police canceling a political rally.
In addition, international rights groups have expressed concern over the alleged stifling of some local media. The government closed the country’s largest privately owned newspaper, The Post, in June over unpaid taxes of about $6 million, but the paper’s owner said it was meant to silence him before the vote. The paper has been a vocal government critic.
Zambia’s economic woes have contributed to the unease. Plunging prices for Zambia’s main export, copper, have closed mines, leaving thousands unemployed.
In addition, Zambia, like other parts of southern Africa, has been hit by a drought that the UN has described as the worst in 35 years.
The UPND has accused President Lungu of presiding over the “collapse” of the economy. But the PF says it has a plan to diversify the economy.
Economic growth has been roughly cut in half, and the country this year asked the International Monetary Fund for help.
Early results from the election were expected late last night.