Zambia cemented its democratic credentials on 30 October in an election that observers judged free and fair, even though a defeated opposition leader has disputed the results in what was an exceptionally tight race.
"The just-ended elections were credible, peaceful and transparent," said John Kunene, team leader of the electoral observer mission from the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
"In the course of observing the elections, we noted best practices that could be emulated by other countries within the region, among them high levels of political maturity demonstrated by leaders of political parties and the voters."
Rupiah Banda, vice-president to Levy Mwanawasa, whose death in office in August necessitated the election, narrowly won the hotly contested ballot by a single percentage point from his rival, veteran populist politician Michael Sata of the Patriotic Front (PF).
Banda, who had been Zambia's acting president, drew the bulk of his support from the rural areas, where the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) has subsidised seed and fertiliser supplies to boost food security.
He took 39 percent of the vote to Sata's 38 percent, who did well among urban voters in the two richest provinces: Lusaka, the capital, and the Copperbelt region, the country's economic hub. Banda was sworn in on 2 November, a few hours after being declared the winner.
The new president's first term will end in 2011, the year Mwanawasa's second and final term would have closed. Mwanawasa, one of the founders of the MMD, died from a stroke after collapsing at a summit of African leaders in June.
The transparency of the election, Zambia's fifth since the end of one-party rule in 1991, was enhanced by the results from each polling centre being posted outside the building once the counting was over, and before the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) had officially announced them.
"The results, as released by the ECZ, are consistent with our own findings from our monitors in the polling stations," Stanley Mhango, president of a local electoral watchdog, the Foundation for Democratic Process, told IRIN.
"We are therefore able to say that the whole process has been very, very transparent, and the few negative incidents were not enough to warrant [being called] electoral malpractice." Protest
Sata, who led the polls during the first two days of counting and only tumbled to Banda on the third and last counting day, disputed the final result, citing irregularities such as late voting in some constituencies.
Polling in two constituencies in Western Province took place two days after the official election date. ECZ chair Florence Mumba said, "Because of the bad terrain, all the three vehicles delivering electoral staff and ballot papers broke down."
Sata, who built a political image as a man of action, alleged that the ECZ had inflated figures for the MMD in its strongholds of Eastern, Central, Western and North Western provinces, and has called for a vote recount in suspected constituencies.
"These elections are not authentic ... only Copperbelt [where the opposition leader won by large margins] has a semblance of what is happening in our country," he said.
In the 2006 general election, which Mwanawasa won by 42 percent to Sata's 29 percent, violent clashes erupted in several towns in the Copperbelt and Lusaka provinces as Sata's lead evaporated when results from rural constituencies came in.
This time a heavy security force presence prevented a rerun of serious protest by disgruntled PF supporters, despite earlier predictions of post-election violence.
However, the election was marred by widespread apathy, with some poling centres recording as few as half the number of registered voters, based on the 2006 voters' roll. With just 90 days to organise the election, the ECZ was unable to launch a fresh voter registration drive.
In his inaugural speech Banda called for unity while pledging to continue Mwanawasa's pro-market policies, which slashed inflation to single digits in 2007, delivered annual economic growth of five percent since 2002, and brought a significant flow of investment into the Copperbelt mining region.
"To be president is to be president of all Zambians. It is not my intention to govern a divided nation; it is time we all united and worked for a better Zambian future," Banda said.
"We are a proud democracy. To the vanquished I have this to say: for Zambia's sake I will look forward, not back. The campaign is over, what is in the past must remain so. It doesn't matter which party you voted for, at the end of the day we are all Zambians." IRIN