Lusaka, Zambia — Zambians head to the polls Thursday to choose a new president, Parliament and local representatives in a general election that analysts say will be a test for one of Africa's pillars of democracy.
President Edgar Lungu, 64, faces his fiercest competition from a familiar challenger, 59-year-old Hakainde Hichilema, one of 15 opposition candidates. Analysts predict a tight race to determine the country's political future, and a second round could result if a candidate does not receive more than 50% of the ballots cast.
Security concerns have risen amid violent clashes in recent weeks between supporters of the two major parties -- the ruling Patriotic Front and the opposition United Party for National Development. One of the confrontations left two people dead.
Police officers have been deployed to maintain law and order and prevent any violence during the polls.
But opposition groups say the deployment of the military is meant to intimidate and harass their supporters before the elections, an accusation denied by police spokesperson Esther Katongo.
"It is not about intimidation, because from the time the military personnel were deployed, we have not heard any adverse report to say that people are being intimidated," she said.
The Council of Churches, a prominent religious group in Zambia, is urging an end to the violence ahead of the elections.
"We believe peace is necessary for you to have free, fair and credible elections," the Reverend Emmanuel Chikoya, general secretary of the Council of Churches, told VOA.
The electoral commission said it is prepared to manage transparent and credible elections despite recent challenges. Officials say they are ready to administer an election runoff if none of the 16 presidential candidates reaches the threshold to be declared winner in the first round.
Ballot papers were being distributed Wednesday across the country, according to electoral officials.
In an interview with VOA, Antonio Mwanza, spokesperson for the Patriotic Front, said the party will respect the election results, regardless of the outcome.
"We have participated in elections since 2001, and we have always accepted the will of the people," he said. "The will of the Zambians is what matters, and whatever the outcome, the Patriotic Front is committed to uphold that."
In June, Amnesty International released a report condemning what it called "an increasingly brutal crackdown on human rights" by the ruling party since Lungu took power.
Amnesty said opposition leaders, journalists and activists have become targets for brutal crackdowns on dissent and free speech. They have accused authorities of using excessive force, enforcing arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings.
Lungu assumed the presidency in 2015 in a snap election following the death of President Michael Sata. He narrowly won the poll against rival Hichilema, who claimed Lungu stole the election.
Zambia, one the world's most indebted countries, also faces massive economic challenges after it defaulted on its sovereign debt late last year.
The main parties in the running are promising to fix the economy, which has been reeling from the impact of COVID-19.
"The economic crisis has gone hand-in-hand with significant amounts of pain, and that has caused considerable discontent," Nic Cheeseman, a professor of politics at the University of Birmingham, told The Associated Press.
In addition to the pandemic's toll, the economy has struggled as the price of copper, the country's main export, fell, and its international debt has risen sharply.
"I think that creates a window of opportunity for the opposition to win, not just that the economy is bad, but that people don't have confidence in President Lungu to be able to turn it around," Cheeseman said.