Lusaka (AFP) - Zambian presidential challenger Hakainde Hichilema alleged election fraud on Friday, accusing poll officials and the ruling party of colluding over delayed results in the neck-and-neck race.
The allegations by Hichilema are set to further stoke tensions between supporters of his United Party for National Development (UPND) and those of President Edgar Lungu's Patriotic Front (PF).
Zambia is known for its relative stability, but the election campaign was marked by weeks of clashes between the rival groups, with at least three people killed in the run-up to Thursday's vote.
"The ECZ (Electoral Commission of Zambia) is somehow conniving... to delay the release of results so that PF thugs armed with guns take over the polling stations at night and write fake results," Hichilema told reporters in Lusaka.
"They are trying to generate the results."
Hichilema, a wealthy businessman who is making his fifth attempt to win the presidency, narrowly lost a snap election to Lungu last year by less than 28,000 votes.
This year, he alleged that his campaign was suppressed by the authorities banning his rallies, arresting party leaders and through biased state media coverage.
Election day -- which saw nine candidates run for president -- was peaceful, with Zambian officials repeatedly issuing calls for calm to try to avoid a violent reaction to the results.
Early results were due to be announced on Friday afternoon, but were delayed several times until they started to trickle in during the evening.
Official results from the first three constituencies out of 156 put Lungu in the lead.
Constitutional changes mean that the winner must now secure more than 50 percent of the vote, pointing to a possible second round run-off that would likely be held next month.
- 'Unprecedented violence' -
Electoral commission chief Esau Chulu described Hichilema's allegations as "regrettable".
"We are not influenced by any individual whatsoever. The results that will come here are what the voters have decided (who) to be president," he said.
The commission earlier this week stated that violence during the election campaign was "unprecedented" and had "marred Zambia's historic record of peaceful elections".
Last month, campaigning in the capital Lusaka was halted for 10 days in a bid to reduce tensions.
But the skirmishes continued, including fighting in the streets near Hichilema's final election rally.
Zambia, a British colony until 1964, recorded GDP growth of 3.6 percent last year -- its slowest rate since 1998.
The falling price of copper, the country's key export, has badly damaged the economy with thousands of jobs lost in mining and inflation soaring to over 20 percent.
But Zambia, in contrast to neighbours like Angola and Zimbabwe, has escaped war and serious upheaval in recent decades.
It last held a peaceful transfer of power to an opposition party in 2011 when Michael Sata took office.
Sata died in 2014, and the 2015 election gave Lungu the right to finish his term.
"I will be back home waiting for the results to be announced peacefully. I urge you to do the same," Lungu, 59, said in a statement after voting on Thursday.
- 'Do-or-die' affair -
An EU monitoring team, which had 120 observers on duty across Zambia, was due to give its first assessment of the election on Saturday.
Analysts had warned that the vote count could be tense.
"Both parties have approached the election as a 'do-or-die' affair," said Dimpho Motsamai, of the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies.
"Prospects of violence after the election and during the run-off cannot be ruled out."
Election turnout was high, election officials said, with voters forming long queues to cast their ballots for the national assembly and local councillors as well as the presidency.
The election also included a constitutional referendum on amending the bill of rights.