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Zambian elections today

Zambian elections took place today, pitting incumbent president Levy Mwanawasa against three rivals, including Michael Sata, a strong candidate who led in some pre-election polls. Mwanawasa was running primarily on his economic record – Zambia has had good economic growth the past few years, a great deal of outside investment and some forgiveness of foreign debt. Sata was running on economics as well – making an argument that Zambia’s economic gains weren’t being shared by most Zambians, and arguing that foreign investors in Zambia were stripping away the country’s riches without adequately compensating the populus.

The election has attracted some attention from bloggers and commentators who are interested in China’s role in Africa, including yours truly. Sata’s anti-China rhetoric has incensed China’s ambassador to Zambia, Li Baodong, who threatened that China might cease investment in the country if Sata were elected – a number of commentators, including John Reed in the Financial Times, consider this an intervention by China in the Zambian election. Sata made headlines today by praising Robert Mugabe, blaming capitalist imperialists for Zimbabwe’s troubles, and stating, “The people of Zimbabwe are not suffering. They are much happier.”

(This strongly contradicts some of my impressions from Zimbabwe, but as a capitalist imperialist, my opinions should be taken with a grain of salt.)

Election results are likely to be released Saturday, and the polling is expected to be close. Head Heeb is all over the story, and sees a likely victory for Mwanawasa, because he believes other opposition candidates – notably businessman Hakainde Hichilema – will pull votes away from Sata. Catherine, writing from Lusaka, suggests that Sata and Mwanawasa are the clear front runners and that Sata is percieved as being more pro-poor and pro-change than the incumbent.

I continue to be fascinated by the rise of Chinese and Indian investment as a major force shaping African politics. African exports to Asia have tripled in the past 15 years, and Asian exports to Africa are rising faster than in any other region. As an unabashed enthusiast for development through trade, I see this largely as a good thing. But the points Sata and others raise about working conditions and equitable distribution of profits are very valid ones. And the willingness of Chinese businesses and government agencies to invest irrespective of human rights concerns in countries like Zimbabwe presents a tremendous problem for other countries that are trying to shape governmental behavior through trade incentives.

Should be very interesting to see what the results are on Saturday.