Zambia starts counting ballots in closely fought elections

Zambian polling places stayed open after dark, as voters at some waited in long lines to cast their ballots while in others officials began counting the results

LUSAKA, Zambia -- Zambian polling places stayed open after dark Thursday, as voters at some waited in long lines to cast their ballots while in others officials began counting the results.

More than 7 million people, or over 83% of Zambia's eligible voters, have registered to vote in the presidential and legislative elections at more than 12,000 polling stations, according to the Electoral Commission of Zambia.

Verification of votes has started at some polling stations in Lusaka, marking the beginning of the counting process. Verification and ballot counting takes place at the polling stations where the results are posted on the walls according to Zambia’s political system. The tallies from each polling station then go to the central results center, which announces the national count.

At a church that served as a polling station, political party agents watched with hawk eyes as electoral officials opened plastic ballot boxes. Ballot papers were held out one by one for verification before being placed on a wooden counting table. Some political party supporters peeped through windows to witness the process, resisting attempts by police officers to get them to leave the station.

“We have to see everything, we are here to protect our vote so we are not going anywhere,” said Robson Nyirenda in Lusaka's Chawama township.

At many other polling stations, voting continued by the light of lamps and mobile phone flashlights, as officials worked to cope with the overwhelming number of voters who turned out.

President Edgar Lungu voted early Thursday and urged people to stay at home “and wait patiently and peacefully for the outcome."

“I hear some politicians are advocating for people to hang around the polling centers, that will just bring chaos,” said Lungu. "I have voted. I am going home, and will listen to the radio, newspapers, television and wait for the results to be declared. That’s what a good citizen does. Please don’t hang around polling stations, you will just cause unnecessary anarchy.”

His main rival is 59-year old Hakainde Hichilema who is making his sixth run to be president of the country of 18 million people. He touts his background as a businessman, saying he will be able to attract investment, better manage the stuttering economy and eradicate alleged corruption.

When Hichilema voted in Lusaka, excited voters abandoned their spots to see him and many chanted: “We want change! We want change!”

Speaking to the press after voting, Hichilema said, “You can see the mood. ... People want change, you can see it. The important thing is that the decision of who becomes president, who will lead this country, must be determined by the Zambian people. The voters, not the people who count the votes.”

The electoral commission earlier this week said although officially voting ends at 6 p.m., everyone in the line before that time will be allowed to cast their votes.

Analysts say like previous contests between the two men in 2015 and 2016, this vote will be closely fought.

Violence flared between supporters of Lungu’s PF party and Hichilema’s United Party for National Development during a heated campaign period.

Both Lungu and Hichilema have urged citizens to vote peacefully but it is what happens after the vote that has many people worried. Results will be announced on Sunday at the latest, the electoral commission said earlier this week.

In total, 16 candidates are vying for the presidency. Zambia will go for a second-round vote if none of the candidates get more than 50% of the votes cast.

More than 800 candidates will battle for the elected 156 seats in the National Assembly. Mayoral and council seats are also up for election.