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LUSAKA (AFP) — Acting President Rupiah Banda took a razor thin lead Saturday in Zambia’s presidential race over opposition leader Michael Sata, who accused authorities of rigging the vote.

With all but two constituencies called, Banda had 39.95 percent of the vote over Sata’s 38.46 percent in the neck-on-neck race to steer the country through 2011 after the death of former president Levy Mwanawasa in August.

“We’re inviting all of you for the swearing-in ceremony,” the ruling party’s jubilant deputy minister for local government, Ben Tetamashimba told journalists.

Banda had only 26,512 votes more than Sata — of the nearly 1.8 million ballots cast — and the opposition Patriotic Front (PF) refused to concede defeat.

Instead the party launched fresh claims of vote fraud and announced that it would ask a court for a recount.

“The PF will not recognise Mr Banda until the court gives us reason to do so,” party spokesman Given Lubinda told reporters.

Sata himself stormed into the Lusaka vote centre earlier Saturday and accused the ruling party of being “a bunch of thieves,” saying the voter roll had been inflated in Banda’s favour.

The commission’s spokesman Cris Akufunda denied the accusation, saying some 4,000 names had been added to the 2006 voters roll only to correct errors. “They are not discrepancies,” he said.

The African Union and the 15-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) have also brushed aside claims of fraud, saying their observers declared the vote free and fair.

With tensions running high, police and army were on high alert to counter any violence after Sata supporters rioted in 2006 following his loss to Mwanawasa.

Branded “King Cobra” for his fiery rhetoric, Sata was unlikely to gain many votes in the last two constituencies, both in regions supportive of the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), analysts said.

“The mathematics is in favour of the ruling party,” said Lee Habasonda, executive director of the Southern African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes.

The election Thursday was called after Mwanawasa died in August following a stroke. The winner will serve until the end of Mwanawasa’s term in 2011.

Sata, 71, who brands himself as a “man of action,” ran on an anti-poverty campaign promising better jobs and housing that won broad support in Lusaka and in copper-mining regions.

He has also vowed to force foreign companies to hand 25 percent stakes to local investors, and is an open admirer of neighbouring Zimbabwe’s controversial President Robert Mugabe.

Although he has little formal education, he is a shrewd political operator who rose to top level government before breaking off to form his own party.

Banda, 71, is a Western-educated former diplomat who campaigned on promises to maintain Mwanawasa’s economic policies, which led Zambia through years of sustained growth.

He has made his own populist pitch to rural farmers, slashing the price of fertiliser by 75 percent in the week before the election.

Although Mwanawasa reined in inflation and built up impressive foreign reserves, Zambia remains one of the world’s poorest countries with more than 60 percent of the population living on less than two dollars a day.

Copyright © 2008 AFP. All rights reserved.