The copper-rich country is one of China’s biggest investment targets in Africa, but most of its people remain desperately poor and the leader of the opposition Patriotic Front, has sought to capitalise on their resentments.
Condemning labour laws, government corruption, poverty and inequality has won him strong backing from the urban masses, as well as among his Bemba-speaking ethnic group.
The sole available opinion poll, while criticised by observers as ‘extremely unscientific’, put him on 46 per cent, with Rupiah Banda, who took over as acting president after Levy Mwanawasa suffered a stroke and later died, on 32 per cent.
Mr Banda, also 71, has a largely rural power base to go with the advantages of incumbency and campaigned as a pro-business moderate who will continue the policies that have made Zambia one of Africa’s top destinations for foreign investment, contributing to consistent economic growth.
At the last polls in 2006, Mr Sata, known as ‘King Cobra’ and an admirer of Robert Mugabe, had an unquestionably anti-Chinese message.
While he has toned down his own rhetoric – perhaps given the fact that Zambia does need foreign investment – his supporters’ sentiments remained unchanged as they cast their ballots.
In Garden Compound, a deeply poor part of the capital, Ray Wasah, 40 a small-business man, said: "They are like the British and the Americans, they come, they steal and they go. We can’t share these resources." Chimba Webby, 25, a security guard from Ndola province, in the heart of the copper belt, added: "Most of the foreigners can’t even build one building, we need investors who will build the nation. The Chinese are the worst. They are just about making money and leaving."
The greatest anger, though, is reserved for small Chinese traders, whose hard work quickly sees them become successful, and labourers brought in to perform non-specialist jobs that Zambians could do themselves.
"You can’t have somebody coming to lift a brick to build a house, we need experts, we need proper collaboration and partnership in this country," said Alexis Phiri, 49, coordinator of an art studio. "It’s not a matter of kicking the people out but we should find a way of exploiting the Chinese instead of them exploiting us." The Patriotic Front is proposing obligatory 25 per cent Zambian shareholdings in foreign-owned firms, and reform of the labour laws.
"The Patriotic Front will be more pro-Zambian about the whole thing, and especially pro-poor Zambian," said Guy Scott, its vice-president.
"Michael is seen as somebody who is not likely to tug his forelock to the Chinese, the other guys are seen as having been corrupted by the Chinese and allow them to overrun the place." Zambia has a history of largely peaceful democratic changes of power, an unusual distinction in Africa, and polling was calm yesterday, with a heavy turnout. But some violence broke out among Mr Sata’s supporters when he lost the last election, and he has warned that he will not recognise the result this time if he feels it has been rigged. Officials said that troops have been put on alert.
"There will be a very strong reaction," if the election is stolen, warned Dr Scott. "I hope it doesn’t come down to that kind of Kenya- style politics where you have to threaten to burn the place down to get half of what’s due to you." The Telegraph (UK)