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By Tom Burgis in Lusaka

Zambia was braced for political turbulence on Saturday after the bombastic opposition challenger claimed “criminals” in the ruling party were conspiring to steal a knife-edge presidential vote.

As the ballot count went down to the wire after Thursday’s poll, Michael Sata stormed into the results centre in Lusaka, the capital, brandishing a ream of unsourced numbers he claimed were evidence of fraud.

Visibly enraged, the man known as “King Cobra” said of the ruling party candidate Rupiah Banda’s campaign: “They can’t fool me anymore … These are criminals, all of them.”

Banda campaign officials dismissed the claims as unfounded.

Amid fears of violence, asked if he would accept what appears to be imminent defeat in his third stab at the presidency, Mr Sata said: “You can only accept if you are defeated and there is no way Mr Banda can defeat me.”

He said international monitors were in Zambia for “a holiday”.

Early results gave a small lead to Mr Sata, the opposition challenger whose lavish pledges have unnerved investors, for control of Africa’s biggest copper producer.

With more than 85 per cent of the votes counted by Saturday morning, Mr Banda was trailing by only about 35,000 ballots of the 1.6m declared. The remaining results will be announced throughout the day Saturday, election officials said, with the ruling party candidate seemingly on course for a victory that shanty town residents say they will be loathe to accept. There is a maximum of some 474,000 votes still up for grabs, predominantly in pro-Banda rural areas, although low turnout so far of 46 per cent suggests only about 220,000 were cast. Mr Banda’s party predicted on Friday night that it would triumph by some 60,000 votes – a forecast that drew accusations of ”provocation” from the opposition.

Mr Sata, whose promises of tax cuts and a slew of public works to create jobs have chimed with voters in one of the world’s poorest countries, has already alleged vote-rigging to thwart him.

Mr Sata’s supporters in Lusaka’s teeming shanty towns have adopted his mantra that, given the huge crowds who have thronged to his rallies, a defeat for their candidate in Thursday’s vote would be a sure sign of skulduggery by the ruling party.

However, Anil Gyan, the former Mauritian foreign minister who leads the AU delegation monitoring the poll, said that, while there had been flaws including the unjustified printing of 600,000 additional ballot papers, “the process itself was free and fair”.

Among other international missions, including European Union diplomatic staff, “no one had seen anything that would suggest malpractice of any kind”, Mr Gyan told the Financial Times in an interview on Friday night.

With its open economy leaving it at the mercy of international investors – and with prices for copper, on which it depends for some two-thirds of export earnings, falling sharply – the impoverished southern African nation of 12m people has much to lose from a repeat of the rioting that erupted after Mr Sata’s narrow defeat in 2006 to Levy Mwanawasa. The popular president, who liberalised the economy, died from a stroke in August, prompting this week’s poll.

A swearing-in ceremony had been tentatively scheduled for Sunday, Mr Gyan said.

While he thought violence remained unlikely, Mr Gyan said: “Mr Sata will find himself isolated from the international community and within the country if he were to urge his supporters to come out.” However, he bemoaned the precedent set by the international community, which reacted to recent electoral crises in Kenyan and Zimbabwean by brokering awkward deals between the contenders in spite the use of political violence.

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