Zambians flocked to vote Thursday in one of their most tightly contested general elections in a decade, with many voters queueing for hours to weigh in as the opposition challenged the government amid an economic downturn.

About 6.7 million people were registered to vote in the southern African country, where President Edgar Lungu's Patriotic Front (PF) was expected to lose votes to opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema and his United Party for National Development (UPND).

Some Lusaka residents got up at night to go to queue at polling stations hours before they opened, observers said.

The electoral commission reported "a good turnout" and a "calm and peaceful" voting environment despite weeks of pre-election violence.

Many polling stations opened late due to delayed transport of voting materials and confusion about changes in locations, according to the electoral commission and media reports.

At some polling stations, errors in ballot papers forced the electoral commission to postpone voting to a date which was still to be announced.

"We are happy to see so many people coming to vote - it shows that Zambians understand the importance of elections, and they value their democratic rights," said Cecile Kyenge, chief election observer of the European Union, which had sent 120 observers to the country.

Despite featuring a total of nine presidential candidates, the elections were seen as a two-horse race between Lungu, 59, and Hichilema, 54.

The opposition accuses the PF of not having been able to contain an economic crisis created by falling prices of copper – the country’s main revenue-earner - and drought-induced electricity shortages, which triggered a steep fall of the kwacha currency and spiralling inflation.

Lungu became president after narrowly winning a January 2015 by-election caused by the death of his predecessor, Michael Sata.

Zambia is regarded as one of Africa's most successful democracies, with many peaceful changes of power having taken place since multi-party democracy was introduced in 1990.

But Thursday's elections were preceded by a wave of violence, with clashes erupting between opposition and government supporters. Police also broke up opposition campaigning and shot two UPND supporters dead.

The country's largest independent newspaper, The Post, was meanwhile closed down in what the authorities said was a tax dispute.

Critics of the government say it has failed to use copper revenue to alleviate poverty while allowing multinational copper companies to avoid paying large amounts in tax.

On casting his vote in Lusaka, Hichilema warned against eventual fraud. "We are expecting free, fair, transparent and credible elections. Zambians accept ... nothing short of that," he said.

Lungu had earlier threatened to mobilize the army if the opposition rejected the results, which were expected within a minimum of two days.

In addition to the general elections, Zambians voted in a referendum on whether to amend the constitution to enhance the Bill of Rights.

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