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By Shapi Shacinda

LUSAKA, Nov 2 (Reuters) – Acting leader Rupiah Banda is likely to be declared the winner of Zambia’s presidential election on Sunday but opposition rival Michael Sata has vowed to challenge what he says was a rigged poll.

Banda, a pro-business centrist who became acting president after Levy Mwanawasa died of a stroke in August, pulled ahead of Sata on Saturday night after trailing the challenger during two days of vote counting.

Preliminary results showed Banda with 708,683 votes versus 682,171 for Sata, the leader of the opposition Patriotic Front. The count was based on results from 148 of 150 constituencies.

Zambia’s electoral commission said the final result would be announced at 0600 GMT on Sunday.

The ruling Movement for Multi-Party Democracy said it was confident that Banda would sweep the remaining two areas.

The PF, however, said Thursday’s vote was marked by discrepancies between vote tallies and the number of voters on registration lists. It announced that it would ask a court to order a recount of the entire tally.

Zambia is Africa’s largest copper producer and any political turmoil could unsettle foreign investors, particularly those in the mining sector.

“I have evidence that results are being inflated … They cheated me in 2006 and they want to do the same,” an angry Sata told journalists in the Lusaka conference hall where officials were announcing the results.

Sata, a populist with strong support among workers and the poor, made the same charge two years ago when he lost the presidential election to Mwanawasa.

 

DEFENCE FORCES ON ALERT

Tensions were high in the capital, a Sata stronghold. A Reuters witness said large numbers of armed police were patrolling the city on Saturday night.

It is unclear what Sata and his supporters will do if Banda is declared the winner.

Authorities have said the army is ready to prevent unrest in the country, one of the most politically stable in Africa.

“Defence forces are on alert in border areas and other places to quell firmly any violence,” Home Affairs Minister Ronnie Shikapwasha said in an address broadcast on state television.

Election officials said the count had proceeded slowly, but defended their actions. Independent election monitors have noted some irregularities in the poll but have stopped short of condemning the vote.

Less than half the 3.9 million registered voters cast ballots, according to the Foundation for Democratic Process, an independent Zambian group that was monitoring the election.

The winner faces the formidable task of matching Mwanawasa’s strong record of fiscal discipline, praised by Western donors and investors, and fighting corruption, two rare successes in Africa.

The vote is also seen as a test of Zambia’s commitment to multi-party democracy, restored in 1990 after 18 years of one-party rule under Kenneth Kaunda, but neither Banda nor Sata is expected to reshape the political landscape dramatically.

Banda had hoped to benefit from Zambia’s relative prosperity as well as Mwanawasa’s popularity. He pledged to maintain the government’s pro-business policies if elected. (Writing by Paul Simao; editing by Keith Weir)

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