It is a crunch time for Zambia’s aspiring presidential candidates as the country goes to the polls on Thursday to elect a fourth president following the death of Levy Mwanawasa on August 19.
Mwanawsa died in France mid-way through his second and last term of office.
Under the country’s law, elections to replace an incumbent president should be held within 90 days.
Zambians have a choice among the four aspirants: Rupiah Banda of the ruling Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) who is also the country’s Acting President, Patriotic Front (PF) leader Michael Sata, United Party for National Democracy (UPND) president Hakainde Hichilema and Godfrey Miyanda of the Heritage Party (HP).
Since Mwanawasa’s burial on September 3, the presidential candidates have been on a campaign trail, combing every corner of the country’s nine provinces for votes.
However, while all parties have left nothing to chance, some of the leaders seem to have made more of an impact than others – just like in the 2006 elections.
Basing on media reports on campaigns from Zambia, with only a few days before the polls, the MMD and the PF leaders have already emerged as front runners.
Banda has pledged to continue building on the successes Mwanawasa’s pro-market economic policies, which saw the country’s currency appreciating greatly, and inflation reducing to single digit in the wake of massive investments in the mining sector.
Banda is, however, still struggling to clear himself of the several allegations of electoral malpractices and vote-buying ahead of the ballot, which has seen the governing party hire image builders to promote him.
Sata, Banda’s greatest challenge, has promised lower taxes for Zambia’s 500 000 government workers who pay up to 30 percent in income tax, decent housing, opening up of rural industries, and increased support to the agricultural sector.
Despite having suffered a serious heart condition in April, this year, 72-year old PF leader, Sata, has shown no signs of slowing down, even refusing to attend his medical review in South Africa which was scheduled for this month, reports say.
As in the past election campaigns, Sata has continued to be a crowd-magnet. His “change of tune” over Chinese investment in the country, an issue he has cleverly managed to avoid during the current campaigns, has made him less controversial than in the last ballot.
But reports say Sata’s major challenge is his own health. His detractors say the heart condition he suffered early this year, leading to his reconciliation with the late president who ordered his evacuation to South Africa, could still have a telling effect on his health.
Another candidate, Hichilema is advocating for free education to university level, free health-care, better-housing and his seemingly honest concern for the poor, have been received with keen interest.
Currently, healthcare services are free in Zambia for children below five years and old citizens above 65 years, while education is free only up to grade seven.
But his greatest challenge since taking over the party has been to shrug-off accusations of the UPND being a tribal organisation. However, at age 46, Hichilema is still considered too raw to run the presidential office by some critics.
HP’s Miyanda according to analysts, is expected to make little or no impact in the outcome of the elections.
Reports say during the presidential nominations, Miyanda who sprung a surprise on his contenders, announcing his candidature a day before closure of the nominations, was forced to wait for hours after he failed to come up with 200 registered voters to veto his nominations.
Meanwhile, Sata’s health has sparked concerns among critics, some of whom have gone as far as suggesting a repetition of the reason behind the pending elections.