Zambia’s Lungu shrugs off challenge, says will boost growth

Lungu says he’ll take decisive action to lift economy
Africa’s No. 2 copper producer hit by commodities downturn
Opposition challenging Lungu re-election
Adds opposition vote petition pushed to Monday

LUSAKA, Aug 18 (Reuters) – Zambia will control spending and act to boost economic growth, President Edgar Lungu said on Thursday, dismissing criticism by the main opposition leader who is challenging his re-election at the helm of Africa’s second-largest copper producer.

The southern African nation is in the throes of an economic slump due to depressed commodity prices with mine closures, rising unemployment, power shortages and soaring food prices that his rival, Hakainde Hichilema, blames on mismanagement by Lungu.

“I have five years now which is sufficient time to take more decisive action. I will take measures to grow the economy and control expenditure,” Lungu, a lawyer, said in a statement after meeting business leaders.

Hichilema, an economist and businessman and an old rival of Lungu, heads the United Party for National Development (UPND)which plans to file a court petition against Lungu’s re-election on the grounds that the ballot in the Aug. 11 vote was rigged.

Lungu said on Thursday that Lusaka and the International Monetary Fund had reached broad consensus on the key areas of an aid programme for Zambia, though he did not elaborate on this. Zambia has been in talks with the global lender over a possible financing deal.

The meetings come against the background of a yawning budget deficit and rising spending on fuel subsidies and power imports.

Lungu said Zambia would gradually introduce new tariffs to reflect the cost of production in the electricity and fuel sectors, while an agriculture support programme under which the government provides subsidies for farming would be restructured.

In February, Zambia scrapped a nearly 73 percent hike in electricity tariffs for industrial and commercial users after Lungu reversed plans to nearly double electricity costs for home users, saying they would hurt the poor.

Lungu, who narrowly beat Hichilema in a vote last year to replace late president Michael Sata, won 50.35 percent of the vote against 47.63 for his opponent in the Aug. 11 vote.

His inauguration had initially been set for Aug. 23. But a winning candidate cannot be sworn in if the vote is contested in the Constitutional Court, which has two weeks to decide on such a petition.

Hichilema’s party, which had earlier said it would file a court petition against Lungu’s re-election on Friday, said it would lodge it on Monday. The ruling party and the electoral commission have rejected the charge that they deliberately falsified the size of Hichilema’s vote.

“We are targeting Monday because the volume of work for our lawyers is overwhelming. Evidence (of fraud) is still coming in from all over the country and we don’t want to miss any of it,” UPND spokesman Charles Kakoma told Reuters.