Widespread allegations of pre-poll irregularities has cranked up tensions in Zambia ahead of presidential elections on 30 October to elect a successor to Levy Mwanawasa, who died in office in August following a stroke.
"There is a lot of tension in the country at the moment and stakeholders are generally sceptical that the election will be free and fair. All in all, the ECZ [Electoral Commission of Zambia] is to blame," Simon Kabanda, a spokesperson for Citizens' Forum, an NGO advocating good governance, told IRIN.
Part of the controversy has centred on the printing of 600,000 additional ballot papers by the ECZ "for contingency" purposes, although there has been no new registration of voters since 2006. Critics also question why the commission allowed a consignment of ballots to arrive from printers in South Africa unaccompanied by election monitors.
A government-employed driver was recently apprehended in the capital, Lusaka, after being found with ballot papers earmarked for delivery to North Western Province. The commission responded that the driver had picked up the electoral materials in error, rather than as part of any deliberate plot.
Despite electoral laws that prohibit the use of government resources for campaigning purposes, and biased coverage by the media, accusations have been traded that both the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) and its main rival, the Patriotic Front (PF), have flouted the rules.
Political tensions spilled over into violence last week when angry MMD supporters went on the rampage in Lusaka, protesting what they deemed negative coverage by the privately owned newspaper, The Post. Journalists from both the public and private media were beaten up.
"We have already seen how violent the MMD supporters have been recently, and we also know how violent the PF supporters can be. So, the possibility of violence is very high after the election. This contest is too close, and whoever loses it ... will not accept the results," said a political analyst, who declined to be named.
The elections are unprecedented; Mwanawasa still had three years to run on his mandate, and the short timeframe to organise the polls - within 90 days of the death of a sitting president, according to the constitution - has put the ECZ under intense pressure.
The 30 October poll is expected to cost about US$75 million. The donor community, particularly the European Union, the US government, Japan, Finland, Norway and Sweden - coordinated by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) - have raised $11.5 million, with the balance to be met by the Zambian government.
"The support for the 2008 election in Zambia is a demonstration of the cooperating partners' commitment to see to it that democracy and the rule of law in Zambia is secured," said Macleod Nyirongo, the UNDP country director in Zambia.
MMD candidate Rupiah Banda, the Acting President, has pledged to continue Mwanawasa's pro-market economic policies, which slashed inflation to single digits in 2007 and led to appreciation of the local currency, with six percent annual growth over the last five years and a significant flow of investment into Zambia's economic heartland, the Copperbelt mining region.
Banda, 71, appointed vice-president in 2006, has secured the backing of two former heads of state – founding president Kenneth Kaunda and his successor, Frederick Chiluba. The latter fought corruption charges throughout Mwanawasa's seven years in power, and seems to be ignoring legislation he himself introduced banning former presidents from taking an active political role.
The ruling party is believed to be popular in three of Zambia's nine provinces: Western and Central provinces, and Banda's home region of Eastern Province.
But in Lusaka and the Copperbelt it has seemingly failed to eat into the urban popularity of PF leader Michael Sata, who also enjoys strong support in Northern and Luapula provinces.
Sata, 71, is a cabinet veteran from the governments of both Kaunda and Chiluba. His party won the two most recent parliamentary by-elections in the Copperbelt and Northern provinces, and recent opinion polls have tipped him to win the presidential election by a comfortable margin.
In the 2006 election, Sata - nicknamed "King Cobra" - won all the urban parliamentary seats in Lusaka and the Copperbelt – the country's wealthiest regions - but lost overall to Mwanawasa, who was able to mobilise the rural vote.
This time Sata has spent the last month campaigning in the countryside, promising to cut food and fuel prices, end the frequent electricity blackouts, slash income tax for the 500,000 government workers, who often pay as much as 30 percent, and create more jobs for the youth.
The PF leader has also toned down his previous vitriol when speaking about the growing Chinese presence, preferring to condemn what he terms "Chinese labourers" in the country and pledging to embrace "Chinese investment".
In 2006, Sata said he would expel Chinese businesses for allegedly paying poor wages and violating labour laws, and threatened to recognise Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province. China is a major foreign investor in Zambia's mining industry.
Since its inception in 2001, the PF has held no party conventions or leadership elections, and critics have pounced on Sata's charismatic leadership style, questioning his party's commitment to democratic process.