(Recasts with Banda speech, adds quotes)
By Shapi Shacinda
LUSAKA, Nov 2 (Reuters) - Centrist Rupiah Banda was sworn in as Zambia’s president on Sunday, vowing to keep doors open to foreign investors after a disputed election victory over his populist rival.
Speaking shortly after a hastily arranged inauguration in the capital Lusaka, the pro-business Banda promised to follow in the footsteps of late President Levy Mwanawasa, whose death from a stroke in August triggered the Oct. 29 election.
However, defeated opposition leader Michael Sata and his Patriotic Front party branded the election a fraud and said they would challenge the result in court.
A prolonged election dispute could cast a cloud over the government and unsettle investors, especially in the mining sector, at a time when Africa’s largest copper producer is feeling the pinch from the global credit crisis.
Foreign lenders and investors have praised Mwanawasa for conservative fiscal policies credited with fuelling an economic boom in the mineral-rich southern African nation where growth has averaged 5 percent per year since 2002.
“We will continue to welcome foreign investors in mining and other sectors, for as long as they obey our laws, by continuing with our sound policies,” Banda said to cheers from supporters after taking the oath of office.
“I promise to be an agent of continuity.”
Banda won 40 percent of the 1.79 million votes cast on Thursday versus 38 percent for Sata, according to final results released by Zambia’s electoral commission. A third candidate took the bulk of the remaining votes.
The margin of victory was 35,209 votes, and the opposition cried foul.
“Our stand is still that we do not recognise the election of Rupiah Banda as something reflecting the will of the people of Zambia,” said Front spokesman Given Lubinda. “We are going to ask the court to grant an order to scrutinise and recount the votes.”
Sata, who has strong support among workers and the poor, alleged fraud in 2006 when he lost the presidential election to Mwanawasa. This time has been more strident in his accusations, saying he will not accept Banda’s victory.
In his speech Banda offered an olive branch to Sata, saying he did not want “to govern a divided country.” The Zambian leader also promised to make an anti-poverty campaign the focus of his government.
Sata’s Front had gained ground during the campaign, especially in low-income areas around Lusaka and among workers in the mining region, with attacks on the government’s mixed record fighting poverty and delivering social services.
At the same time the opposition leader was hampered by lingering concerns about the strident anti-investment tone of his previous campaign for the presidency.
“I think Banda is the right choice because he has a high level of maturity and good credentials for economic management,” said Oliver Saasa, an economist and political commentator based in Lusaka.
The opposition’s fraud suspicions were aroused by a late surge of votes that erased Sata’s early lead. The Front said the poll was marked by discrepancies between vote tallies and the number of voters on registration lists.
Zambia’s army had been placed on alert to quell potential violence in the wake of the election but the government said on Sunday that there had been no unrest. Zambia is one of the most politically stable nations in Africa.
“The country is calm and our security officers have done a tremendous job (to prevent) any trouble. We deployed police officers in areas where we anticipated (violence) and we don’t expect any trouble,” Home Affairs Minister Ronnie Shikapwasha told reporters. (Writing by Paul Simao; editing by Keith Weir)