/ 20 September 2011

Zambia’s youth back ‘King Cobra’ for president

Zambia's Youth Back 'king Cobra' For President

Zambians voted on Tuesday in a closely contested election between incumbent Rupiah Banda and opposition leader Michael Sata, who has been a critic of foreign investment in Africa’s biggest copper producer, most notably from China.

Crowds of youths chanting “We want change, we want change” mobbed 74-year-old Sata as he visited a polling station in the capital, Lusaka, where long queues of people had to wait for hours for voting booths to open.

At one station, the frustration boiled over as the crowd went on the rampage, burning electoral materials and damaging five vehicles parked nearby. Police said they made four arrests.

Banda’s Movement for Multi-Party Democracy, which has run the nation since the end of one-party rule in 1991, claims most of its support in the countryside where farmers have benefited from an agricultural subsidy scheme.

Sata’s strength is in Lusaka and the northern Copper Belt, where many complain about meagre returns from more than five years of strong economic growth.

“I will vote for Sata because he’s the only candidate who promises to address the issues facing the majority of Zambians,” said Victor Mwanza, an unemployed 32-year-old.

Voting is due to end at 4pm GMT and the first results from urban areas are likely to arrive late this evening.

Campaigning officially ended on Sunday for a 24-hour cooling off period after six weeks of mudslinging and rhetoric that sometimes touched on the growing clout of foreign mining firms in the $13-billion economy.

Banda, also 74, appealed for a peaceful election on national television late on Sunday, and police are out in force to prevent any violence even though the Southern African country of 13-million is not known for political unrest.

Its kwacha currency has risen more than 3% against the dollar in the last week, suggesting investors are confident there will be none of the post-poll fighting that has blighted recent African elections from Côte d’Ivoire to Kenya.

An opinion poll published a week ago suggested Banda held a narrow lead over Sata, nicknamed King Cobra because of his vicious tongue, although a number of floating voters meant an upset was still possible.

Youth vote
A large turnout of young voters, many of whom are unemployed, is likely to play into the hands of Sata, who lost to Banda by just 35 000 votes, or 2% of the electorate, in a 2008 presidential run-off.

Banda, a former diplomat and confidante of first president Kenneth Kaunda, has won accolades abroad for opening up the country to international investment and ensuring mining policies are clear and consistent.

Sata, whose career includes work in British car assembly plants, toned down his criticism of Chinese investment this week, telling Reuters on Friday that he would keep Zambia’s strong diplomatic and commercial ties with Beijing if he won.

Chinese firms have become big players in the former British colony, with total investments by the end of 2010 topping $2-billion, according to Chinese embassy data.

Banda and Sata have pledged hefty spending on Zambia’s woefully inadequate infrastructure, raising concerns about elevated government spending at a time of potential weakness in the price of copper, its economic mainstay.

An alliance between Sata and another opposition party, the UPND, crumbled this year, improving the chances of a new full five-year term for Banda, who moved into the presidency after the 2008 death of his predecessor, Levy Mwanawasa. – Reuters