Zambia’s main opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema took an early lead over President Edgar Lungu on Saturday in a tight election battle as the key copper producer’s economy stutters due to weak commodity prices.

The Electoral Commission of Zambia delayed announcing the first results on Friday, saying audits were taking longer than expected mainly due to a large voter turnout.

It denied charges by Hichilema’s United Party for National Development that it was dragging its feet because it was trying to manipulate the results in favour of Lungu’s Patriotic Front (PF).

Data from eight of Zambia’s 156 constituencies showed entrepreneur Hichilema in the lead with 47 706 votes after Thursday’s election, against 41 572 for lawyer Lungu.

Voter turnout currently stood at 57.55%, far above the 32% recorded early last year when Lungu narrowly won an election to fill the vacancy left by the death of then president Michael Sata.

If no candidate fails to win more than 50% this time, Zambia will have to hold a second round of elections.

Campaigning for this week’s vote centred on the economy, after months of rising unemployment, mine closures, power shortages and soaring food prices in Africa’s second largest copper producer.

Supporters of the two main parties clashed in what is generally one of the continent’s most stable democracies.

Hichilema says the president has mismanaged the economy but Lungu, whose government has been negotiating a financial support package with the International Monetary Fund, blames weak growth on plunging commodity prices.

The electoral commission said final results from the elections, in which Zambians also chose members of Parliament, mayors, local councillors and whether or not to accept proposed changes to the constitution, would not be in by late Saturday or early Sunday as initially anticipated. – Reuters

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