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Banda or Sata?

Choose ME! Zambian President Rupiah Banda at a rally in Lusaka's Mandevu constituency.
Choose ME! Zambian President Rupiah Banda at a rally in Lusaka's Mandevu constituency.

PRESIDENT Rupiah Banda hopes Zambia's mining boom will propel him to re-election over main opposition leader Michael Sata tomorrow.

Sata made his name slamming the growing Chinese presence in the country.

The election could potentially bring a landmark transfer of power in the poor southern African country, which has been ruled by just two parties since independence from Britain in 1964.

The last race between the two candidates - a special election in 2008 to fill the final three years of late president Levy Mwanawasa's term - was decided by two percentage points.

Sata accused Banda's Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) of rigging the vote, and his supporters rioted for days after.

Observers are predicting another tight race in tomorrow's presidential, parliamentary and local polls, which will decide the country's leadership for the next five years.

About a million of the 5,2million Zambians on the election roll are first-time voters, a factor also likely to work in Sata's favour.

"This really is a watershed election," said veteran political analyst Lee Habasonda, who heads the nonprofit Southern African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes.

"It comes after 20 years of MMD rule. And while the MMD may have advantages of incumbency, I think they've been given a run for their money because of the time they have been in power. It's going to be a very close call."

Banda has campaigned on a platform of economic growth and infrastructure development, after presiding over an economy that grew 7.6% last year and 6.4% the year before, according to the IMF - one of the fastest rates in Africa.

The growth spurt has been driven by rising international copper prices and a rush of Chinese investment in Zambia's copper sector, the largest in Africa and one of the top 10 in the world.

Banda and the MMD claim credit for the boom and the public-works construction spree it has helped fund.

But Banda has been accused of failing to spread the wealth, with 64% of the country's 12.9 million people still living on less than two dollars a day.

Under Banda, the country abolished a 25% tax on windfall profits in the mining sector, pleasing investors but sacrificing hundreds of millions of dollars in state revenue.

Sata's Patriotic Front (PF) want to re-institute the tax.

They also say Banda is soft on corruption and has betrayed Mwanawasa's graft-busting legacy.

But critics fear the strong-fisted firebrand, known as "King Cobra", would make an authoritarian president.

Third-party candidate Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development could play the role of spoiler in the race.

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