Zambia opposition leader leads early poll results

A Zambian political party agent holds a voters register with their photos at Buyuni, 30km east of in Lusaka, Zambia, Thursday Oct. 30, 2008. Zambians voted to elect a replacement for their president who died in office. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)
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LUSAKA, Zambia (AP) — Zambia's main opposition candidate was ahead Friday in early presidential election results in this southern African nation, but his lead was slowly narrowing.

The first results from Thursday's race to replace President Levy Mwanawasa, who died in August, gave opposition leader Michael Sata 187,863 votes, nearly twice as many as acting President Rupiah Banda.

But by late Friday, with 23 of 150 constituencies reporting, Sata's lead had narrowed to less than 50,000 votes — 518,479 to Banda's 469,789.

Analysts had predicted the contest would be close and Banda would prevail, in part out of sympathy for Mwanawasa.

The economy had been the main campaign issue, since prices for copper — the mainstay of Zambia's economy — are dropping, inflation is rising and fears of interest rate hikes are growing.

Banda, running to complete the three years left in the popular Mwanawasa's second term, had promised to stick with his predecessor's free market policies under which foreign investment increased from $71.7 million in 2001 to an estimated $4 billion in 2008 — with $1 billion of that from China.

The late president also won praise for fighting corruption and modernizing Zambia's economy, but acknowledged he had failed to lift his nation out of crushing poverty.

Sata has promised tax relief and accused the governing party of moving too slowly to help the poor.