Lusaka – Zambians have started voting in presidential and parliamentary elections after a campaign marred by violence between rival groups.
Al Jazeera’s Tania Page, reporting from a polling station in the capital, Lusaka, said there were queues of hundreds of people waiting to cast their ballots from early on Thursday morning.
AL JAZEERA’S TANIA PAGE IN LUSAKA
There’s a lot at stake and the country needs law and order for the economy to stabilise. The cost of living has soared and thousands of people have been laid off in the mining industry.
This is also a historic vote because for the first time it isn’t enough that a presidential candidate gets a simple majority, they need to get more than 50 percent.
It’s also the first time that candidates have had running mates. This is really to avoid extra elections because in the past decade two presidents have died in office and because they didn’t have running mates – elected vice presidents – they’ve had to hold extra elections.
This is the fifth election Zambia has held in a decade.
“Zambians have heeded the call of campaigners to come out and vote in their numbers,” she said. “But the opposition has grave concerns that the build-up to the election and possibly the vote itself will not be free and fair.”
First-time voter, Humphrey Mukungwa, 22, a supermarket shelf packer, told Al Jazeera that he was happy to cast his vote but worried about political tensions in his neighborhood, Mtendere, a poor part of eastern Lusaka.
“I’ve never had the chance to vote before and now the day has come and I feel like I have done something important,” he said.
“My only worry now is for our security after the voting. We need more police manpower to stop the fighting between the ruling party and the opposition.”
Hakainde Hichilema, the leader of the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) told Al Jazeera that the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) was trying to restrict the activities of its opponents.
“We demand a free, fair, transparent and credible election,” Hichilema said.
“Let the people of Zambia choose the leadership they want. We will do everything to maintain peace. We want our voters to turn out in large numbers and not fear being beaten by PF thugs out there.”
Zambia has seen a wave of pre-election violence in recent weeks, with fighting erupting between opposition and government supporters. Police have also broken up opposition campaigning.
According to the Zambian Elections Information Centre (ZEIC), at least three people have been killed and many injured during campaigning.
“Escalating levels of violence may have a negative impact on the elections and reduce voter turnout,” the ZEIC said in a pre-election report on Wednesday.
About 6.7 million people are registered to vote in the southern African country, where President Edgar Lungu’s left-leaning PF faces a tough challenge from pro-business opposition leader Hichilema and his UPND.
Lungu, 59, became president after narrowly-winning a January 2015 by-election after the death of his predecessor Michael Sata.
The opposition has accused the PF of not being able to contain a crisis created by falling prices of copper – the country’s main revenue earner – and drought-induced electricity shortages, which triggered a steep fall of the kwacha currency and spiralling inflation.
Both said they were confident of outright victory, but either party could fail to garner more than half of the vote as required by electoral law, which would trigger a second round of voting.
The opposition has said Lungu cannot win the elections without resorting to fraud. The president has threatened to mobilise the army if the opposition rejects the results of the vote.
In the capital’s Kalingalinga neighbourhood, voters braved an early morning chill and started queueing as early as 4:00am. Sophie Muma, a 35-year old teacher, was one in a queue of hundreds who told Al Jazeera she hoped her vote would count and that the outcome would be peaceful.
“I’m hoping that my choice will matter in this election and whatever result we get, it must be a peaceful outcome in the end as this election is not only for Lusaka but the whole of Zambia,” she said.
Otis Chiwisha, 45, a garage manager, a voter at Vera Chiluba Secondary School in Mtendere, told Al Jazeera he had taken the morning off work to vote.
“As a Zambian I am excited and elated to line up and exercise my democratic right to vote because it is us the people who have the power in our hands to put someone in State House. It is our choice,” he said.
Radio reports from around the country indicated that polling stations had opened on time and the electoral commission urged voters to remain calm as they cast their ballots. Zambians will also vote in a constitutional referendum on the Bill of Rights which promises to ensure citizens will have a right to housing, and also outlaws abortion and homosexuality.
Additional reporting by Tendai Marima in Lusaka. Follow her on Twitter: @i_amten .
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