Zambia’s opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema has taken an early lead in the country’s presidential election over incumbent Edgar Lungu, according to the first results from the electoral commission on Saturday.
Hichilema tallied 171,604 votes versus the 110,178 garnered by Lungu in the results for 15 of the southern African nation’s 156 constituencies.
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Those 15 constituencies include perceived Lungu strongholds, suggesting that Hichilema has gained ground since the last elections in 2016, when he lost by a slim margin in a contested vote marred by allegations of rigging by Lungu.
A total of 296,210 votes were cast in those constituencies, representing a 71.75 percent turnout rate, chief electoral officer Patrick Nshindano told a media briefing in the capital, Lusaka.
The first results, initially expected on Friday, were delayed after counting went on overnight because of the huge voter turnout and because political parties objected to the electoral commission’s initial figures in one constituency, which differed from those from monitors on the ground.
The Electoral Commission of Zambia allowed the last polling station to remain open until 5am (03:00 GMT) on Friday to give people who queued for hours an opportunity to cast their ballots amid restrictions on internet access and violence in three regions.
In Chawama township in Lusaka, Lungu’s parliamentary constituency before he became president, residents said supporters of both Lungu and Hichilema both claimed victory and celebrated throughout the night.
Lungu’s ruling Patriotic Front (PF) party said its vote tally showed a huge turnout in its strongholds and it was confident of victory. Hichilema is running for the United Party for National Development.
Social media access was largely restored in Zambia on Saturday.
Al Jazeera’s Haru Matasa, reporting from the capital Lusaka, said the vote “is still too close to call”.
“It seems for now that the opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema is leading,” Mutasa said.
“But like in many African elections, the urban results are usually announced first, and in the urban areas that is where the opposition has its strongholds. When the rural results start coming in that’s when sometimes things seem to change so, in a couple of hours and maybe a day or so, we will have a clearer indication of what actually is going on.”
‘A huge referendum’
Lungu – who deployed the military following pre-election clashes – strengthened the army presence in three provinces after two deaths were reported on election day, including a PF chairman.
An estimated seven million people registered to vote in presidential and parliamentary elections that saw top contender Hichilema, a successful businessman, challenge Lungu’s attempt to win a second five-year term.
Hichilema, who is running for the sixth time, was backed by an alliance of 10 parties.
Nevers Mumba, another presidential candidate who leads the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy opposition party, said on Friday the vote had been “a huge referendum against the Patriotic Front and their inability to lead the nation”. Mumba conceded defeat.
Investors are closely watching the outcome of Thursday’s election: the country is highly indebted and suffered the continent’s first pandemic-era sovereign default in November.
International Monetary Fund (IMF) support, already broadly agreed, is on hold until after the vote. So too is debt restructuring seen as an early test of a new global plan to ease the burden on poor countries.