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Main Opposition Candidate Claims Victory in Zambian Election - 2001-12-29

Early results from Zambia's presidential election show a race still too close to call. But the main opposition candidate has already declared victory. Six of the opposition contenders are alleging vote-rigging by the ruling party. They have asked the chief justice to delay swearing in Zambia's new leader.

Presidential candidate Anderson Mazoka of the United Party for National Development says his own party's polling figures show him with a comfortable lead over the ruling party candidate, Levy Mwanawasa. He has declared himself the next president of Zambia.

"The answer is quite simple," he said. "I must be declared the winner because I have won. There is no alternative."

Mr. Mazoka blames the delay in releasing official election returns on ruling-party efforts to stuff the ballot boxes.

Voters went to the polls on Thursday in near-record numbers. Traditionally, Zambian election results are out 24 to 48 hours after the polls close. But the results are still incomplete and official returns have been trickling in very slowly.

The six main opposition candidates, including Mr. Mazoka, claim the electoral process has been flawed by widespread irregularities. They accuse the ruling party, the Movement For Multi-Party Democracy, of trying to rig the vote.

Candidate Nevers Mumba told reporters they have asked the Chief Justice to delay swearing in the new president until their concerns are addressed. "We feel that it would be wrong for him to proceed in a hurry with the inauguration because we want to ensure that we solve this problem," he said.

The inauguration was originally scheduled for Saturday. It has already been postponed once, until Wednesday, after it became clear the results would not be in on time. Another delay would mean putting off not just the ceremony, but the announcement of a winner. The Zambian constitution requires an inauguration within 24 hours of declaring the final results.

For Mr. Mumba, the date is less important than making sure the right man is sworn in. "We want at least the Zambian people to feel that what they voted for is what they have in office," he said. "And until this is achieved, the opposition front shall not rest until we make sure that the will of the Zambian people is respected and honored."

The ruling party has rejected the allegations of vote-rigging. An MMD spokesman said it is impossible for the party to rig elections it does not control. He stressed the massive voter turnout means there are simply a lot of ballots to count, and it is taking time for election officials to verify the results. He admits MMD figures also show Mr. Mazoka leading, but by a fairly narrow margin.

The margin of victory is likely to be key after the new president takes office. With 11 candidates on the ballot, opposition support was divided among four or five major contenders. The winner, whoever it is, is expected to take only between 20 percent and 30 percent of the vote.

That means most Zambians will have voted for somebody other than their new president. The winner will also have to deal with a divided parliament, in which no one party really dominates. A wider margin of victory at the polls could give the new president more leverage in the National Assembly.

All of this could have been avoided if the opposition parties had united ahead of the poll. Analysts believe together, they would have easily defeated the MMD.

Mr. Mazoka insists the opposition has won, regardless of its fragmentation. He warned the MMD that attempting to alter the outcome of the vote could spark a hostile response from the Zambian people. And he refused to urge his supporters to refrain from violence.

"I will not be the one that determines how the Zambian people react," said Mr. Mazoka. "But they have the right to react in the manner they see fit to defend their rights."

There are two main groups of independent election observers in Zambia, one from the European Union and one from the U.S.-based Carter Center. But neither group will comment yet on the fairness of poll. Both groups plan to issue statements Sunday.