LUSAKA, Zambia (AP) — Zambians formed long lines at polling stations on Thursday in a tight election race for president and parliament that has been marred by violence between rival factions.
There were no immediate reports of unrest during voting in a country whose peaceful transitions of power in the past have been held up as a democratic model in Africa. However, officials were anticipating tension after polls closed Thursday evening and after the final announcement of results, expected within 24 hours. A winner must get more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff election.
The leader of the African Union observer mission and former Nigerian President Goodkuck Jonathan said he was happy with the process so far.
"Zambians are known to be peaceful. We encourage to continue maintaining that standard," he said.
President Edgar Lungu of the ruling Patriotic Front party faced businessman Hakainde Hichilema of the opposition United Party for National Development. Lungu won the last election with 48 percent of votes, taking office in early 2015 after the death of President Michael Sata. Hichilema, a close second in that election, called the vote a sham.
Allegations of election irregularities dogged the current race. Campaigning was suspended for 10 days last month in the capital, Lusaka, after a supporter of Hichilema's party was shot dead amid a protest over police canceling a political rally.
In addition, international rights groups have expressed concern over the alleged stifling of some local media. The government closed the country's largest privately owned newspaper, The Post, in June over unpaid taxes of about $6 million, but the paper's owner said it was meant to silence him before the vote. The paper has been a vocal government critic.
Zambia's economic woes have contributed to the unease. Plunging prices for Zambia's main export, copper, have closed mines, leaving thousands unemployed. Economic growth has been roughly cut in half, and the country this year asked the International Monetary Fund for help.