Zambians to head to polls in close presidential race

LUSAKA (Reuters) – Zambians head to the polls today to vote in a closely contested election in Africa’s biggest copper producer between incumbent Rupiah Banda and nationalist opposition leader Michael Sata.

Campaigning officially ended on Sunday to allow for a 24-hour cooling off period after six-weeks of mudslinging and rhetoric that occasionally touched on the growing clout of foreign mining firms, most notably from China.

The police have said they will be out in force to prevent any violence in the country of about 13 million not known for political unrest.

An opinion poll published a week ago suggested Banda held a narrow lead over Sata — nicknamed ‘King Cobra’ on account of his vicious tongue — although a number of undecideds meant an upset was still possible.

Patriotic Front (PF) leader Sata lost to Banda by just 35,000 votes, or two per cent of the electorate, in a 2008 run-off. Banda appeared on state television on Sunday to announce that any troublemakers would be arrested.

Banda, a former diplomat, has won accolades abroad for opening the country to international investment, especially from China, and providing clear regulations on operations that have helped keep the playing field level.

Sata, whose long and varied career includes work in British car assembly plants, has been a vocal critic of Asian mining investment, but toned it down in an interview with Reuters on Friday, saying he would keep Zambia’s strong diplomatic and commercial ties with Beijing.

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