Zambian opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema took an early lead in the country’s presidential election over long-time rival and incumbent Edgar Lungu, according to first results issued by the electoral commission on Saturday.
Lungu, 64 and in power since 2015, faces a potentially tight contest against Hichilema – known as “HH” – a businessman who has criticised the president’s management of an economy in turmoil.
Investors are closely watching the outcome of Thursday’s election: the southern African 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.
Results from 15 of the country’s 156 constituencies gave Hichilema 171,604 votes versus the 110,178 garnered by Lungu, who is running for a second five-year term.
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 elections marred by allegations of rigging.
The first results had initially been expected on Friday. They were delayed after counting went on overnight due to heavy voter turnout and because political parties objected to the electoral commission’s initial figures in one constituency, which differed with those from monitors on the ground.
An estimated 7 million people registered to vote in the presidential and parliamentary elections in the country, Africa’s second biggest copper producer.