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Zambians Vote for President Thursday - 2001-12-26

Zambians cast their ballots Thursday for a new president. The candidates are in a last minute campaign push to win support from the voters.

All over Lusaka, you can see truckloads of people chanting and singing in support of their candidates. One group wears yellow, another green, another blue to signify who they plan to vote for.

The day before the vote, thousands of people turned out for rallies all over the city for some of the 11 presidential candidates and countless parliamentary contenders. Some were committed party supporters, but others were just there to learn more about the candidates before they go to the polls.

About 2,000 people attended this rally for the ruling party candidate, Levy Mwanawasa. They wore t-shirts and colorful cloth wraps bearing his photo. But many people in the crowd appeared to be there more out of support for the outgoing president, Frederick Chiluba, than for his handpicked successor.

After two terms in office, Mr. Chiluba is constitutionally prohibited from running again. A woman who gave her name only as Mercy was one of many who thanked him for 10 years of service to Zambia. Mercy says she will vote for Mr. Mwanawasa because she hopes he will carry on with his predecessor's policies.

"He's a good candidate anyway, she said. "We are thinking he is going to continue changing these things. He's going to continue the process that Mr. Chiluba left. So he's going to continue. He's a good candidate anyway."

Both the candidate and the outgoing president addressed the rally. They were warmly greeted by the crowd, although the wildest applause was reserved for Mr. Chiluba. He says the rest of Africa is watching the Zambian vote.

"So we need a peaceful campaign," he said. "Let us show the rest of Africa that it can be done, and it will be done here."

Africa is watching for other reasons as well. The new Zambian president, whoever he is, will take over as chairman of the Organization of African Unity, a post currently held by Mr. Chiluba.

For his part, Mr. Mwanawasa assured the outgoing leader he will stay in close contact if he wins at the polls. "I intend to consult you very closely because of the experience you have gained during the 10 years you have led this country," he said.

But those ties to the current government make many voters in Zambia uncomfortable. They fear Mr. Chiluba will still be calling the shots from behind the scenes.

Many people believe it is time to change not just the president, but the ruling party as well. A recent opinion survey found Mr. Mwanawasa had only about 20 percent of voter support nationwide. The rest of the support is divided among 10 opposition party candidates.

Many of them were members of Mr. Chiluba's government until earlier this year, when they broke away and began forming their own parties ahead of the poll. Three are considered serious contenders for the presidency - former Vice President Christon Tembo, Army General Godfrey Miyanda, and successful businessman Anderson Mazoka.

Only Mr. Mazoka has not served in the Chiluba government. That fact helped draw more than 1,000 supporters to his campaign rally, a few kilometers down the road from his opponent's.

Businesswoman Lamie Suba, 33, says in her eyes, Mr. Mazoka is the only candidate who can be trusted. "Why I want to vote for him is, he is one person who was not in the system before," she said. "We want a new person who was not leading with them, somebody who was not there for 10 years with [Mr.] Chiluba."

Supporters of other candidates, though, feel the same way. As a result, this is likely to be one of the closest elections on record in Zambia. Analysts believe it is impossible to predict a winner at this stage.

The Electoral Commission hopes to announce the outcome by Friday, and the plan now is to swear in the new president Saturday. But privately, some analysts believe it could be next week before the election is really decided.