Zambia Opposition Leader Hichilema Leads After High-Turnout Vote

Zambian opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema has the early lead as counting continues from Thursday’s cliffhanger election, which may have attracted a record number of voters.

As officials from the two major parties swap accusations, investors are keenly awaiting the outcome of the plebiscite in Africa’s second-biggest copper producer.

The winner will also need to revive an economy in default on its Eurobonds, and secure a long-sought loan from the International Monetary Fund.

With results tallied from 31 of the 156 constituencies, Hichilema had 449,699 votes to President Edgar Lungu’s 266,202, chief electoral officer Kryticous Nshindano said Saturday.

Some 731,936 total valid votes have been counted so far out of 7 million registered voters. The partial count may not be an accurate indication of the final outcome, which is expected to be announced within three days.

Zambia Opposition Leader Hichilema Leads After High-Turnout Vote

Lungu, 64, narrowly beat Hichilema, 59, in the last two elections that the challenger’s United Party for National Development claimed were rigged.

Its legal challenge in 2016 was thrown out of Zambia’s Constitutional Court after the party’s lawyers ran out of time to make their case.

UPND spokesman Cornelius Mweetwa on Saturday forecast that Hichilema would win this year’s race in a landslide, and called on the Electoral Commission to speed up the counting of votes.

Patriotic Front Secretary General Davies Mwila said in an interview that Lungu is still geared to win.

Still, Lungu faces his toughest vote yet amid growing poverty and surging inflation.

Violence surrounding the election in the southern, northwestern and western provinces rendered the “whole exercise a nullity,” Lungu said in a statement on Saturday. Contending that the vote wasn’t free and fair, his party is considering its next course of action, he said.

The lead-up to the election was tense, with the opposition accusing the government of violence and other unfair tactics to impair its campaign. The army was deployed in some areas, and access to social-media platforms including Facebook and WhatsApp was restricted, according to NetBlocks, a London-based monitoring agency.

“Facebook’s apps are among those affected by the limitations imposed on social media services in Zambia,” a spokesman for the company said in an emailed response to questions. “We continue to actively monitor the situation and are in touch with the relevant authorities in Zambia.”

The Chapter One Foundation, a human rights monitor in Zambia, late Friday won a court order telling the government to restore access.

The ruling party denied trying to rig the outcome and has blamed the opposition for the deaths of some supporters. Its leader in North-Western Province was killed Thursday.

Long queues Thursday at polling stations in Lusaka, the capital, suggest turnout could be much higher than in the previous two elections. In 2016, 58% of registered voters cast their ballots, while in a 2015 snap election, when Lungu swept to power, it was less than one-third. This time, turnout is estimated at 73.8% in the areas tallied so far, the highest in any national election for at least 30 years.

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