Zambians are electing a new president Thursday to replace late President Levy Mwanawasa, who won international praise for prudent economic management policies and a crackdown on graft. The election, which political observes believe will be close, pits acting President Rupiah Banda of the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) and main opposition leader Michael Sata of the Patriotic Front (PF). But the latest poll conducted by the independent African market information group Steadman seems to favor Sata with 46 percent, while Banda trails with 32 percent. The leader of the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND), Hakainda Hichelema follows at a distant third, with 10 percent undecided.
From the capital, Lusaka, political analyst Fred Mtesa tells reporter Peter Clottey that enthusiasm is generally high ahead of today's vote.
"People are generally very excited and looking forward to voting following the mass rallies, which were held yesterday in the capital city. All the candidates are upbeat with their supporters, and people are generally expecting a favorable outcome for their respective candidates," Mtesa noted.
He said main opposition leader Michael Sata has energized his party base ahead of today's vote.
"I think what has excited the people is that Mr. Sata is a politician that has been around for a long time. He is a very seasoned campaigner and this time round, he has traversed the length and breadth of Zambia making his message known to the electorate. And because of his charisma, I think a lot of people are excited that if he wins the election, we are bound to see change that would lead to the uplifting of the standards of living," he said.
Mtesa said the incumbency of the ruling MMD party could pose a significant challenge to the other participating opposition parties.
"You cannot rule out the ruling party, the MMD, because even though Mr. Banda is regarded as an outsider coming from UNIP (United National Independence Party), he is a candidate for the ruling party, which has a machinery throughout the country. And therefore, they are expected to use the incumbent advantage to marshal the necessary votes to win the election," Mtesa pointed.
He said Zambians seem to be alert and vigilant to prevent possible fraud during and after today's vote.
"There has been talk of the danger of rigging taking place, and they are about saying the country is on alert looking out for any mischievous attempt to rig the election. But so far, a number of accusations have been made and have turned out to be unfounded. And therefore we all expect in the country that the elections would be conducted in a free and fair manner," he said.
Mtesa said the chairperson of the electoral commission is well respected across the political divide and would do a good job.
"I would say that firstly, the Electoral Commission of Zambia is headed by a highly respected judge, Justice Florence Mumba. And she is respected on both sides of the political spectrum, the ruling party as well as the opposition," Mtesa noted.
He said the electoral commission seems to have improved upon the last election to make this election more credible.
"There has been a new development, which basically has improved the counting process. It means that the election agents of the various contestants would have to sign at the polling station the results, and these are the results that would be transmitted to the election center in Lusaka. So the process has improved in terms of transparency," he said.
Meanwhile, the army chief warned Wednesday that violence would not be tolerated, adding that forces would be placed on high alert after voting ends today. This comes after main opposition leader Sata alleged that rigging deprived him of victory in the 2006 election he lost to Mwanawasa.
He is still accusing the government and the ruling MMD of rigging this time around as well, and said he will not accept the results if he loses. He is also calling on his supporters from a recent rally to sleep outside polling booths if possible to limit the chance of voter fraud in today's balloting.