Acting president Rupiah Banda took over the reins of government in early July, after Mwanawasa suffered the stroke that led to his death.
Considered a political outsider, Banda had been plucked from retirement to become Mwanawasa’s vice president in 2006. He’s outmanoeuvred a dozen contenders within the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy to secure the nomination, and now wants to win the presidency himself.
His main opponent is Michael Sata, staging his third presidential bid with a promise to use Zambia’s financial windfall from years of booming copper exports to help the poor in a country where more than 60% of the population lives on less than two dollars a day.
"It looks like the race will be very close between the top two candidates," said Neo Simutanyi, a respected pollster and political science lecturer at the University of Zambia.
"It is too close to call at the moment," Simutanyi said.
Banda and Sata are grey-haired 71-year-olds who worked together under Zambia’s first president Kenneth Kaunda, before they parted company in 1991 when Sata quit to seek his own political fortunes in the opposition.
Banda is a Western-educated economist and experienced diplomat. Sata has had little formal education but is a shrewd political operator who rose from the ranks to become a key minister in earlier governments.
Banda has campaigned largely on a vow to maintain the policies that have led Zambia through years of sustained economic growth, due mainly to soaring prices for copper, which accounts for 80% of export earnings.
That seems to favour Sata, whose Patriotic Front won strong support in Lusaka and the copper belt in the 2006 polls by pledging to run out Chinese investors and to use Zambia’s mineral wealth to help the poor with improved housing and better jobs.
He’s since toned down his anti-Chinese rhetoric, saying he will work with all foreign investors, but now says he will force foreign firms to have a 25% stake held by locals.
Sata has already accused electoral authorities of tampering with ballots in a bid to rig the election, warning he will not accept the results if he believes the vote was fixed.
Opposition parties have also complained that the voter roll was not updated after the 2006 race, and includes only 3,9-million names in a nation of 12-million people.
But they lost a legal battle seeking to force authorities to register new voters, after a judge ruled that the short electoral timetable after Mwanawasa’s death in August made new registrations impractical.
Zambia suffered days of rioting by Sata’s supporters after he lost to Mwanawasa two years ago. He insists that he never condoned the violence, but his posturing has raised fears of new unrest if the outcome this week is disputed.
"We are worried that the post-election period may be violent. It appears both parties may not accept the results if their candidates are declared losers," said Lee Habasonda, executive director of the Southern African Centre for Constructive Resolution of Disputes.
"There is an urgent need of finding ways of reducing the tension which is rising ahead of the elections," Habasonda said.
Two other candidates are potential spoilers for either side in a close race.
Hakainde Hichilema (46), of the United Party for National Development, is seen as a dark horse contender, while former vice president Godfrey Miyanda of the Heritage Party is seen largely as an also-ran. – AFP