Zambia awaits election result after tense campaign
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Lusaka, Zambia - Zambians waited on Friday for presidential election results that may trigger disputes after a violence-tinged campaign by the two leading candidates in a country usually known for relative stability.
Polling day on Thursday was peaceful, after weeks of clashes between rival supporters of President Edgar Lungu's Patriotic Front (PF) and Hakainde Hichilema's United Party for National Development (UPND).
The turnout was high, election officials said, as voters formed long queues to cast their ballots for the national assembly and local councillors as well as the presidency.
Lungu, who narrowly won office in a snap election last year, faced another strong challenge from wealthy businessman Hichilema in a field of nine candidates.
Fewer than 28,000 votes separated the two candidates in the 2015 ballot.
Early results were expected later on Friday, with the complete tally due out by Sunday.
Constitutional changes mean that the winner must now secure more than 50 percent of the vote, pointing to a possible second round run-off.
"The counting of votes is ongoing in polling stations countrywide," electoral commission director Priscilla Isaac said at a briefing.
"The commission wishes to reiterate that all election results appearing on social platforms are unofficial (and) continues to call for calm and peace until the whole process is concluded."
At least three people were killed during the campaign, with regular clashes erupting between PF and UPND activists.
The commission earlier stated that the unrest was "unprecedented" and had "marred Zambia's historic record of peaceful elections".
Last month, campaigning in the capital Lusaka was halted for 10 days in a bid to reduce the violence.
But the skirmishes continued, including fighting in the streets near Hichilema's final election rally.
Hichilema has previously claimed that fraud denied him victory last year.
And this year, he charged that his campaign was suppressed by the authorities banning rallies, arresting party leaders and through biased state media coverage.
Zambia, a British colony until 1964, recorded GDP growth of 3.6 percent last year -- its slowest rate since 1998.
The falling price of copper, the country's key export, has badly damaged the economy with thousands of jobs lost in mining and inflation soaring to over 20 percent.
"The people of Zambia... have never suffered like this since independence," Hichilema, 54, known as "HH", told reporters after he voted.
Zambia, in contrast to neighbours like Angola and Zimbabwe, has escaped war and serious upheaval in recent decades.
It last held a peaceful transfer of power to an opposition party in 2011 when Michael Sata took office.
Sata died in 2014, and the 2015 election gave Lungu the right to finish his term.
"I will be back home waiting for the results to be announced peacefully. I urge you to do the same," Lungu, 59, said in a statement after voting.
An EU monitoring team, which had 120 observers on duty across Zambia, is due to give its first assessment of the election on Saturday.
Analysts have warned that the election count could be tense.
"Both parties have approached the election as a 'do-or-die' affair," said Dimpho Motsamai, of the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies.
"Prospects of violence after the election and during the run-off cannot be ruled out."
The election also included a constitutional referendum on amending the bill of rights.