Close race expected between Hichilema making his sixth run for the presidency and the current president, Lungu.
Zambians are voting in nationwide elections after a tense campaign dominated by economic woes and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Approximately seven million citizens are registered to vote for a president, legislators and local government representatives in the polls that opened at 6am (04:00 GMT) on Thursday and close 12 hours later at more than 12,000 voting stations across the vast country.
The winning candidate must receive more than 50 percent of votes to avoid a runoff, which analysts deem unlikely.
Sixteen presidential candidates are vying for the top job, but the frontrunners are incumbent Edgar Lungu, 64, and his longtime nemesis, business tycoon Hakainde Hichilema, 59, who are facing off at the polls for the third time.
Hichilema, who is running for the sixth time, is backed by an alliance of 10 parties.
‘I am voting for change’
Hundreds of people waited in long queues before sunrise on Thursday to cast ballots at a secondary school in Lusaka’s Matero township.
President Lungu was among the first people to vote in the capital Lusaka.
After casting his ballot at a school in Chawama, a poor neighbourhood of Lusaka, Lungu told reporters that “Zambians are ready to vote and they come in numbers”.
Rising living costs have eroded the incumbent’s support base, surveys suggest, and the election could be even tighter than 2016 polls when Hichilema lost by about 100,000 votes.
Lungu, a lawyer by training, is accused of unsustainable borrowing, particularly from Chinese creditors, to finance a spree of infrastructure projects.
Under him, Zambia became the first African country to default on its sovereign debt since the coronavirus pandemic began, while inflation soared to 24.6 percent in June, the highest rate in more than a decade.
“People who are voting for Hichilema say that he is a businessman, an economist and self-made millionaire,” said Al Jazeera’s Haru Mutasa, reporting from a polling station in Lusaka. “They assume he knows a thing or two about the economy.”
“Those supporting the president say appreciate his pro-poor policies, they say they love the fact that he’s going to try to lower taxes and appreciate the infrastructure developments that they are seeing so far, the public hospitals, roads and hospitals.”
Africa’s second-biggest producer of copper after the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the eighth producer in the world, missed another debt repayment this year.
“I am voting for change. We can’t continue on this path,” said Andrew Daka, 20, who was voting for the first time in his life.
Analysts say corruption is another major preoccupation for voters.
“If we do not tackle corruption, then you’ll find that we’ve got a distortion within the economy and we have seen this in the last years where people that seem to have the resources in the country are not the private sector, who run businesses, but people who are affiliated with political parties,” Trevor Hambayi, a financial analyst, told Al Jazeera.
“This is speaking to corruption, which is really hampering economic growth.”
Lungu says “things are moving well in the country” and is confident of victory, although his critics point to the high cost of living, poverty and joblessness.
The vote will “be influenced by poor governance and the economy, which is biting,” said O’Brien Kaaba, a political scientist at the University of Zambia.
Tensions have flared in the run-up to polling in this southern African country of 17 million people.
Supporters of Lungu’s Patriotic Front (PF) party and Hichilema’s United Party for National Development (UPND) have clashed violently on several occasions, prompting Lungu to deploy the army.
Critics denounced the unprecedented move as a tactic to intimidate opposition voters, which the PF denies.
The president has also grown tough on dissent since he took power in 2015, raising concerns of a heavy-handed response if results are contested.
UPND supporters are keeping a low profile in Lusaka, a Lungu stronghold, for fear of being attacked by PF counterparts.
Lungu is confident of securing half a million votes more than Hichilema because “people now know me”.
“Zambia is at a crossroads,” Hichilema said on Wednesday, pledging to redress the economy. “So much money was borrowed at a very high cost and this is frustrating development efforts.”
Zambia owes in excess of $12bn to external creditors and spends 30 to 40 percent of its revenues on interest payments on its debt, credit rating firm S&P Global estimates.
“We need a leadership that can put in place some planning to rebuild the economy,” Hichilema said.
In the absence of credible opinion polls, analysts say Hichilema’s economic pitch, which has bolstered his support among young, frustrated and jobless voters, could be the deciding factor in the vote.
Talks over an IMF aid package, already broadly agreed, are on hold until after the vote. So too is debt restructuring seen as an early test of a new global plan to ease poor countries’ debt burdens.
“Investors may see a potentially clearer path to an IMF programme and a debt restructuring under HH,” Christian Libralato, emerging markets portfolio manager at BlueBay Asset Management, which holds Zambia’s defaulted bonds.
The opposition has accused the government of seeking to rig the ballot – allegations the PF has rejected.
Local and international observers will be monitoring polling stations, some of which will be using a biometric voter identification system for the first time.
Official results are expected by Sunday.