As Zambians go to the polls, it's all about the economy

The country is voting after the death in office of its president, with results expected later this week. A billion-dollar national debt and falling copper prices will be major challenges for the next leader.

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP
A woman casts her vote on presidential election day in Lusaka, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. Zambians are voting to choose a new leader following the death of Michael Sata, 77, who died Oct. 2014, in a London hospital following a long illness, after serving as President of the Southern African country since 2011.

Voting in Zambia’s first election since the death in office of President Michael Sata last year was top of mind for Abigirl Chimwemwe Tuesday.

She closed her restaurant in the southern copper-belt town of Chingola to take advantage of the national holiday, enacted by acting President Guy Scott, to allow her workers to vote. Like other Zambians, she braved heavy rainfall Tuesday to weigh in on a tight race between ruling Patriotic Front (PF) candidate Edgar Lungu and Hakainde Hichilema, leader of the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND). 

“I came with my five workers to vote just like I encouraged them to register to vote, because it their right to choose who they want to govern our country,” Ms. Chimwemwe told the Monitor before she cast her own vote at a local primary school.

The country also kept with its record of peaceful elections, despite a campaign period marked by violent skirmishes in some provinces. The 11 standing candidates all voted, and Police Service spokesman Charity Chanda Munganga told the Monitor that Zambians could go out to vote without fear.

“So far we have not received any reports of violence at any polling station in all the provinces,” Ms. Mungaga said. “The situation is calm and peaceful.”

Former South African Vice President Kgalema Motlanthe, leader of the African Union (AU) observer mission, said he was happy with the voting atmosphere and hoped it would sustain itself beyond the announcement of the election results, which are expected Thursday or Friday.

The presidential by-election came 90 days after President Sata died while receiving medical care in London. The campaign period has been marred by successor disputes within the ruling party and the notable milestone, however brief his tenure, of the first white African president since apartheid, Mr. Scott.

Scott is constitutionally barred from running for office because both his parents were born outside of Zambia.

Election officials did face obstacles today, with the rainfall, coupled with poor roads, delaying distribution of materials in rural areas. But Priscilla Isaacs, director of the Electoral Commission of Zambia, assured voters that voting would be extended in affected areas.

The new president will have to address Zambia's billion-dollar debt and deal with falling copper prices in Africa's second-largest producing nation. Copper accounts for about 10 percent of gross domestic product and a quarter of government revenue, according to the International Monetary Fund.

For one voter at the Kasompe Primary School in Chingola, a ruling party stronghold, the introduction of minimum wages was a reason to elect Lungu.

“I am voting for Edgar Lungu because [the ruling party] made my boss increase my salary, “ says Majory Phiri, who works as a maid. "My living has improved a bit but I think they can do more if I make them win.”  

Peter Hansungule, a small-scale farmer with a total output of 150 bags of maize per year told the Monitor that he voted for opposition candidate Hakainde Hichilema because “ he is an economist with vast experience in the agriculture sector who will improve farming in the country."

For Chimwemwe, the restaurant owner, and her workers, life goes back to normal after casting their votes.  “We will go and open our place to serve a few hungry customers," she says. 

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