Banda sworn in as Zambia leader after election win

LUSAKA (Reuters) – Rupiah Banda, a pro-business centrist, was sworn in as Zambia's president on Sunday after a narrow election win, but the main opposition party said it would challenge the result in court.

Banda’s victory, if allowed to stand, will be welcomed by foreign lenders and investors, who praise his government’s conservative fiscal policies. Zambia’s economy has grown an average 5 percent per year since 2002, buoyed by a mining boom.

He had campaigned as the heir to late President Levy Mwanawasa, who died from a stroke in August, and pledged to make no dramatic policy changes if elected in Thursday’s poll.

Opposition leader Michael Sata also promised to pursue a pro-growth agenda but concerns lingered about the strident anti-investment tone of his last campaign for the presidency in 2006.

"I think Banda is the right choice because he has a high level of maturity and good credentials for economic management," said Oliver Saasa, an economist and political commentator based in the capital Lusaka.

Banda will face pressure to do more to reduce poverty and improve government services, especially in rural areas that have failed to benefit from the economic boom, Saasa said.

Banda won 40 percent of the 1.79 million votes cast versus 38 percent for Sata, the leader of the Patriotic Front, according to final results released by Zambia’s electoral commission. A third candidate took the bulk of remaining votes.

The margin of victory was 35,209 votes.

Sata and the Front branded the election a fraud and said it would contest the result.

"Our stand is still that we do not recognise the election of Rupiah Banda as something reflecting the will of the people of Zambia," said Front spokesman Given Lubinda. "We are going to ask the court to grant an order to scrutinise and recount the votes."

Banda, who was named acting president shortly after Mwanawasa’s death, took the oath of office at a hastily arranged ceremony in Lusaka. Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe was among those in attendance.

CALM PREVAILS

The opposition’s suspicions were aroused by a late surge of votes that erased Sata’s early lead. The Front said the poll was marked by discrepancies between vote tallies and the number of voters on registration lists.

Zambia is Africa’s largest copper producer and any political turmoil could unsettle foreign investors, particularly those in the mining sector.

Sata, a populist with strong support among workers and the poor, made the same fraud charge two years ago when he lost the presidential election to Mwanawasa.

Zambia’s army had been placed on alert to quell potential violence in the wake of the election but the government said on Sunday that there had been no unrest. Zambia is one of the most politically stable nations in Africa.

"The country is calm and our security officers have done a tremendous job (to prevent) any trouble. We deployed police officers in areas where we anticipated (violence) and we don’t expect any trouble," Home Affairs Minister Ronnie Shikapwasha told reporters.

Election officials said the count had proceeded slowly but defended their actions. Independent election monitors reported irregularities but have stopped short of condemning the vote.

About 45 percent of the 3.9 million registered voters cast ballots in the election.

The winner faces the formidable task of matching Mwanawasa’s strong fiscal discipline, praised by Western donors and investors, and anti-corruption battle, rare successes in Africa.

The vote was also seen as a test of Zambia’s commitment to multi-party democracy, restored in 1990 after 18 years of one-party rule under Kenneth Kaunda.