Lusaka — Stakes have never been this high in the run-up to general elections in Zambia, otherwise hailed as Africa's 'air conditioned state' for climatic reasons and typically peaceful character.
So intense is the atmosphere this time around that some opponents have challenged the eligibility of the incumbent, Edgar Lungu, to contest, while on the other hand, the ruling party has raised allegations on the health of his main challenger, Haikande Hichilema.
The country of more than 18 million people has since independence from Britain some 57 years ago been a source of stability in the continent and played a key role in the liberation of fellow Southern African nations.
However, on August 12, polls that look likely to be the most fiercely contested since the advent of multi-party democracy 30 years ago are to put that stability and the ethos of a 'One Zambia, One Nation' to the test.
Election fever has gripped the nation, following the mandatory dissolution of Parliament 90 days before polls, and the main contenders choosing their running mates.
The situation prevailing in the country is peaceful despite allegations of authoritarianism slammed on the incumbent.
There have been questions over the fitness of Lungu (64) and Hichilema (58), constitutionally and legally respectively, the electoral commission cracking the whip on errant opposition parties, defections from the main opposition to the governing Patriotic Front (PF) as well as concern over alleged bullying of journalists.
These have heightened fears emotions might spill over.
This in a country that while a beacon of peace has a recent history of volatile polls, particularly the last exercise held in 2016 when Lungu was announced the winner with slightly over 50 percent of the vote ahead of perennial presidential aspirant Hichilema of the United Party for National Development (UPND).
UPND has ahead of the upcoming poll mounted a legal challenge, since dismissed, that Lungu was ineligible having been sworn in twice as head of state before.
The Supreme Court has ruled against the application, on the basis that the first time the former Minister of Justice and Minister of Defence was sworn in, in 2015 after a presidential by-election, it was to serve the remainder of the term of President Michael Sata, following his death in 2014.
Zambia's sixth president, Lungu, secured 48,84 percent of the vote, to Hichilema's 47,1 percent.
The governing party has, through media aligned to it, sought to portray Hichilema as physically unfit and suffering from an undisclosed ailment.
Some critics in PF have gone to the extent of lampooning him as having mental problems.
The businessman has scoffed at the allegations and even posted on social media riding a bicycle.
In recent days the two rivals - Hichilema and Lungu- who are among some 20 individuals vying for the presidency, confirmed their running mates for the August polls. Both running mates are women, showing a commitment to enhance gender parity.
Lungu has opted for Professor Nkandu Luo, a scientist who has served in various ministerial positions in government.
Vice-President Inonge Wina (80) is to retire from politics after the August 12 polls.
"I have no doubt we are going to make a great team," Lungu said this week after filing his nomination papers before Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) Chairperson, Justice Esau Chulu.
Hichilema has settled for Mutale Nalumango, the Minister of Information under the then-ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD).
"She wasn't my choice alone. I listened to you all. She's the next Vice President of the Republic of Zambia," a buoyant Hichilema said this week.
However, defections to the PF have rocked his UPND in recent weeks.
Members of Parliament, Teddy Kasonso and Prof Geoffrey Lungwangwa, are the latest individuals to cross the floor.
Other recent heavyweight defectors include Davies Chiko, Moses Chiyuka, Jackson Makwamba, Victor Chibiya Maliti, Davies Sumaili and Ephraim Kaang'andu Belemu.
PF is not exempt from factionalism, and journalists have borne the brunt.
Earlier this month, journalists Francis Mwiinga and Maingaila Nancy Malwele were brutalised as two factions of the ruling party violently clashed at the party's headquarters in the capital Lusaka.
They were caught in the crossfire after party members who did not support Chishimba Kambwili's returned to the PF.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) denounced the attack.
"Journalists must be free to do their jobs safely and without fear, especially ahead of the country's August election, when the political temperature will likely increase," Angela Quintal, CPJ's Africa coordinator, said.
Authorities have also slapped charges of sedition against newspaper columnist and academic Sishuwa Sishuwa for a column on the potential for unrest in Zambia after the elections.
"Zambia may burn after the August election," he stated in his column published in local and international media in March.
Tensions have rocked the Zambia Electoral Commission and the Leadership Movement after the polling agency dismissed the party's so-called soldiers at the former's headquarters after the agents wore regalia resembling that of the national army.
Ambassadors accredited to Zambia jointly appealed for violence-free, credible polls.
Lungu assured Zambia would ensure a free and fair exercise.
"We will stick to the electoral rules and follow them," the incumbent assured European Union (EU) Heads of Mission.
Polls in 2016 sparked a political crisis and drew a wedge between the opposition and Lungu's government, which has been in power for ten years and was formed 20 years ago.
Riots took place in most parts of the country after the UPND rejected the results.
Hichilema spent a lengthy period in detention on treason charges critics said were spurious.
The country's main market in the capital was burnt down by alleged saboteurs. The government pointed a finger at the opposition.
Meanwhile on the economy front, Zambia is struggling and sinking further into unsustainable debt.
Last November, Zambia defaulted on a US$42,5 million payment on a Eurobond.
The kwacha currency has been on a freefall.
It was trading at 22,45 to the United States dollar at the time of publication.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects the economy too reliant on copper to register growth of only 0,6 percent in 2021.