By Tom Burgis in Lusaka

Stable but frustrated, copper-rich but grindingly poor, Zambia goes to the polls on Thursday in an election seen in many quarters as a barometer for the continent as it braces for an economic storm.

Observers expect a close fight between Michael Sata, the populist opposition leader, and Rupiah Banda, the acting president, who has pledged to continue the cautious economic policies of Levy Mwanawasa, the much-loved president who appointed Mr Banda as his deputy before his death from a stroke in August triggered the election.

In the leafy avenues and tumbledown shanty towns of the capital, Lusaka, the policies of Mr Sata – known as King Cobra for his venomous political style – command overwhelming support. His pledges include slashing taxes for public servants and conjuring a solution to rising food and fuel prices.

One recent poll suggesting he was poised to win the presidency rattled emerging market investors whose frayed nerves can scarcely cope with the merest hint of political risk. Yet urban Zambians, who almost delivered him victory in the 2006 poll, support his promises to furnish them with the jobs and decent homes they have long lacked.

Many analysts, however, predict that Mr Banda will win by a hair’s breadth, in part because two other hopefuls may split the opposition vote. Mr Banda lacks his rival’s flair but has the better claim to the mantle of Mr Mwanawasa.

“My priority is to complete the project that was started by the late president,” Mr Banda told his final rally on Wednesday. Mr Mwanawasa secured sustained if unspectacular growth, dollops of aid and hefty Asian investments by following donors’ prescriptions for orthodox economic management to the letter.

Whether he wins or not, Mr Sata has already made his mark on the direction of Africa’s biggest copper producer.

His lavish spending promises have prompted Mr Banda to commit to big, unplanned increases in farming subsidies and other sweeteners aimed at galvanising his rural support base.

He has recalled to his team erstwhile big hitters who were sidelined during Mr Mwanawasa’s anti-corruption campaign.

“It’s the politics of folly,” said Oliver Saasa, a respected consultant in Lusaka.

“The market is nervous and we have to build confidence.”

With the copper price tumbling as global demand weakens, and the public finances already in deficit, either man will struggle to fund his expansive manifesto.

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