By Michelle Gumede and Jack McBrams, AFP/Lilongwe
Millions of voters in Malawi yesterday cast ballots in a closely-fought election, with President Peter Mutharika battling to hold off two rivals in a race that focused on corruption allegations and economic development.
Polls closed at 6pm after a day of long queues at many voting stations, with early results expected today evening or tomorrow.
Mutharika, who has been in power since 2014, faces opposition from his own deputy Saulos Chilima and former Baptist preacher Lazarus Chakwera.
“I am happy that I have voted,” said Mutharika, 78, leader of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) after leaving a polling station in Thyolo town outside Blantyre.
“There are very long lines but I am encouraging everyone to vote because it is the people who will decide.”
His campaign for a second five-year term has highlighted his record of improving roads and power infrastructure.
Under Mutharika, inflation in the southeast African country has fallen from 23% to below 9%, but still just 11% of the population has access to mains electricity.
The election is the first since a new law forced parties to declare large donations and banned the once-common practice by candidates of giving cash handouts.
“We need jobs to change our lives and that is what I hope my candidate does,” Madalitso Willie, 25, a motor mechanic in Lilongwe, told AFP, declining to reveal his preference.
“We have been disappointed so many times before but now we want something different,” said Violet Moyo, a 30-year-old businesswoman.
The National Initiative for Civic Education, a democracy advocacy group, reported long queues at 75% of polling stations, though election day appeared to gone smoothly.
Food shortages, graft scandals and ballooning external debt have hurt Mutharika’s popularity while in office.
He must defeat a strong challenge from Chakwera, leader of the main opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP), who came a narrow second in the 2014 election.
“We mounted a very formidable campaign unlike any other party and unlike any other year,” Chakwera said after voting in Lilongwe as crowds scrambled to see him. “We are positive about the result.”
Mutharika’s other opponent, Chilima, quit the ruling party last year to form the youth-focused United Transformation Movement, while staying on as vice president.
Under Malawi law, the president cannot fire the vice president.
Chilima, 46, emphasised his youth credentials by doing push-ups on stage during the campaign, while his wife released a popular rap video extolling his qualities to be president.
More than half of the 6.8mn registered voters are under 35.
“Today we start a new beginning, a new life for Malawi,” Chilima told AFP.
“Chilima seems to have the strongest support among youth and in urban centres,” Amanda Lea Robinson, a Malawi specialist at Ohio State University, told AFP. “This could be attributed to his populist campaign, as well as his relative youth.”
Under Malawi’s “winner takes all” system, Mutharika won in 2014 with just 36% of the vote.
He came to power in the aid-dependent country vowing to tackle corruption after the “Cashgate” scandal erupted a year earlier, revealing massive looting from state coffers.
But his government has been dogged by several high-profile cases of corruption and nepotism.
Last November, Mutharika himself was forced to return a $200,000 donation from a businessman facing a corruption case in a $3mn contract to supply food to the Malawi police.
Dan Banik, a politics professor at the University of Malawi, told AFP that a close vote count could test the election system and the courts.
“How will losing presidential candidates take defeat? Will supporters of the incumbent DPP peacefully accept losing?” he asked.
Voters yesterday also choose lawmakers and local councillors.
Malawi won independence from Britain in 1964, and was then ruled by Hastings Banda as a one-party state until the first multi-party elections in 1994.
The country, which has a population of 18mn people, has 1mn adults living with HIV — one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world.
In March, the country was hit by torrential rains from Cyclone Idai, killing 59 people. The storm also cut a swathe through Mozambique and Zimbabwe, leaving nearly 1,000 dead.
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