LUSAKA, Aug 12 (Reuters) – Zambians started voting on Thursday in a showdown between President Edgar Lungu and main opposition rival Hakainde Hichilema that looks too tight to call and comes amid mounting debt and a flagging economy.
Polling opened at 6 a.m. (0400 GMT) with long queues seen at voting booths in the capital Lusaka, which could point to a huge turnout in Africa’s No. 2 copper producer.
At a voting station in the Kabwata suburb of Lusaka, first time voter Ben Mulenga, 19, said he had arrived two and half hours before voting started because he anticipated long queues.
“The things that are happening in our country, including the bad state of the economy and the high levels of unemployment need to be addressed,” said Mulenga, a student at the University of Zambia.
Lungu was among the earliest voters, having brought forward his voting time. Wearing a black leather jacket and a white face mask, Lungu, accompanied by his wife, waved to a cheering crowd as he left in his motorcade.
“We are winning, otherwise I wouldn’t have been in the race if we were not winning,” Lungu told reporters shortly after he voted at a polling station in the Chawama township in Lusaka.
Some 54% of registered voters are 34 or younger, statistics from the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) show.
That could help Hichilema, who is facing Lungu for the third time and has placed the economy front and centre of his campaign, political analysts said.
In November, Zambia became the first African state to default on part of its debt during the coronavirus pandemic. It will be among the continent’s slowest growing economies this year, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates.
Zambia owes in excess of $12 billion to external creditors and spends 30%-40% of its revenues on interest payments on its debt, credit rating firm S&P Global estimates.
In office since 2015, 64-year-old Lungu narrowly defeated Hichilema, the CEO of an accountancy firm before entering politics, in a disputed election the following year.
The president has touted the new road, airport and energy projects he has overseen as laying the groundwork for economic development and growth.
His push for greater state control over the mining sector – an approach that has sparked fears of resource nationalism among international investors – will create jobs, he says.
“The challenge we have is the economy and we are doing our best to ensure that the challenge is faced head on,” Lungu said during his final virtual campaign rally on Wednesday.
But so far his debt-financed infrastructure splurge has failed to pay economic dividends, and unemployment remains high.
That has left him open to attack from Hichilema.
“So much money was borrowed at a very high cost and this is frustrating development efforts,” Hichilema, popularly known as HH, told a news conference on Wednesday.
(Writing by MacDonald Dzirutwe, Editing by Joe Bavier and Raju Gopalakrishnan)