Banda accused of fraud

Zambians went to the poll on Thursday in the closely contested presidential by-election following the death of President Levy Mwanawasa in France in August.

Political analysts believe the search for the country’s fourth head of state since independence from Britain in 1964 will be a difficult win for Rupiah Banda, the acting president and candidate for the ruling Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD), who was Mwanawasa’s deputy.

Banda has pledged to continue with Mwanawasa’s pro-market economic policies, which led to 6%annual growth over the past five years as well as the opening up of massive investments in the country’s mining and tourism sectors.

But analysts say widespread allegations of corruption and vote-buying by his campaign team members have dented his chances.

Accusations that Banda’s campaign team has been paying opposition political parties not to participate in the election, and has tried to manipulate the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) into facilitating wide-scale vote rigging have given momentum to the opposition’s bid for the republican presidency.

Only three other contenders are vying for the top job, with former Cabinet minister Michael Sata (71) seen as Banda’s greatest threat. Sata’s Patriotic Front (PF) has promised to cut the costs of essential commodities such as food and fuel, resolve the country’s electricity blackouts, and reduce taxation for Zambia’s 500 000 government workers, who pay as much as 30% in income tax.

Recent opinion polls have tipped Sata to win the presidential election with a run-away margin and his party scooped the two most recent parliamentary by-elections in his homeland Northern province and in the country’s economic lifeblood, the Copperbelt region.

In the 2006 election Sata won all the urban parliamentary seats in the capital, Lusaka, and in the Copperbelt, but still lost the presidential vote to Mwanawasa, whose majority support came from the rural areas.
Sata has spent the past month conducting crowd-pulling campaign rallies in rural towns.

Sata has also toned down his criticism of Chinese investment. In 2006, he threatened to expel Chinese businesses for paying low wages to their Zambian employees and said he would recognise the independence of Taiwan, which Beijing considers a break-away province.

But Sata’s health has become a major campaign issue, especially after the sudden death of Mwanawasa, whose ill-health was repeatedly cited as a threat to the presidency before he contested the 2006 ballot to win a second and final five-year term that would have ended in 2011. Sata suffered a heart complication early this year and was evacuated to South Africa for treatment.

The other contestant is Hakainde Hichilema, the United Party for National Development (UPND) leader. Hichilema is a successful businessman who has promised free education for all up to university level and free health care services.

Education is currently free only up to grade seven, while health care services are only free in the rural areas. Hichilema is largely seen as a close third in the presidential race.

Godfrey Miyanda, leader of the Heritage Party, is a former vice president in Chiluba’s government whose central campaign message is the promotion of moral virtue and integrity in public office.

Currently, the ruling MMD enjoys massive support in three of Zambia’s nine provinces; in Banda’s homeland of Eastern province and in Central and Western provinces. Sata’s PF is popular in Lusaka, the Copperbelt, Northern and Luapula provinces, while Hichilema’s UPND boasts a huge following in his native land, Southern Province, and in North-western Zambia.

The pre-election period has been marred by several incidents of suspected electoral fraud. The ECZ has been widely criticised for allowing the printing of 600 000 extra ballot papers for contingency, and also for allowing the ballot papers to be delivered in two batches, with the last load coming into the country without supervision by election monitors.

On the eve of the election, opposition political party supporters fought running battles with security personnel in the border resort town of Livingstone after rumours spread that two trucks believed to be carrying pre-marked ballot papers from South Africa were about to cross the border.

The two trucks were impounded and the ECZ maintained that the vehicles were carrying lamps and batteries to be used during the election.

There was no immediate verification of the contents.

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