Malawi President Joyce Banda waves to the crowd gathered in Lilongwe for the official launch of her campaign.
Malawi holds its fifth general elections on Tuesday since attaining multiparty democracy in 1994. There is no clear winner in sight, despite vigorous campaigns by 12 candidates for the highest office in the land. Apart from the presidency, there are 193 constituencies and 462 wards at stake.
Malawi President Dr Joyce Banda, the ruling People’s Party (PP) candidate, has traversed the country handing out cows, goats, maize seeds and new houses to people in rural areas. An estimated 80% of the population live in rural areas. She has also garnered overwhelming coverage in the country’s media.
Malawi uses the “first past the post” system, meaning a candidate who wins the most votes carries the day. Four main candidates have stood out and are jostling for the 7.5-million votes.
Apart from Banda, there is Dr Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), Atupele Muluzi of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and Professor Arthur Peter Mutharika of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
All four parties have been at the helm of the Malawi government before, but do not appear to be offering anything new in their manifestos.
Poverty alleviation, improved agriculture, and increased access to education, health services and employment have all dominated their election campaigns.
For the first time, two opinion polls were run in Malawi, each predicting a different winner. A poll by Afrobarometer showed the DPP in the lead with 27% support, followed by the MCP at 21%, the PP 19% and the UDF with 14%. But a poll by Malawi’s Research Tech Consultants predicted a landslide victory for the PP with 46% support, followed by the DPP with 33%, the UDF with 15% and the MCP with a paltry 4%.
Banda has launched a spirited campaign to secure another five-year term, despite her two-year-old government’s role in the Cashgate scandal, in which an estimated $20- to $100-million went missing from government funds.
Although some of her senior party members and government officials were accused, her government has only arrested one Cabinet minister and a number of junior civil servants.
As a result of Cashgate, foreign donors put on hold $150-million for the 2013-14 fiscal year. An estimated 40% of Malawi”s annual budget is donor-funded.
Opposition parties say giving the PP another term will be condemning Malawians to gloom and despair.
Banda, for her part, has constantly reminded Malawians that her government has turned around Malawi’s moribund economy by addressing fuel shortages, a lack of foreign exchange and the spiralling inflation rate – problems she says she inherited when she assumed power, following the sudden death of Bingu wa Mutharika on April 5 2012.
The UDF’s Muluzi, at 35, is the youngest of the presidential contenders and is selling his party’s “agenda for change”, which he says offers a new leadership style with fresh ideas.
The party, which appears to be targeting the youth vote, has promised to provide free primary school education. His father, Bakili, ruled Malawi from 1994 to 2004.
The DPP’s septuagenarian Mutharika often reminds people of his brother”s achievements in power.
A former law professor, he also highlights his educational background and overseas experience as qualifying him to rule Malawi.
The MCP’s Chakwera has had a daunting task in convincing Malawians that he is leading a renewed party. Its first leader, Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda, ruled Malawi with an iron fist from 1964 to 1993. Mysterious deaths, political persecutions and detentions without trial characterised his reign.
The Malawi Electoral Commission and the government have disputed Zimbabwe media reports that Banda had planned to rig the election with the help of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, his Central Intelligence Organisation and a controversial Israeli company, Nikuv International Projects.
The company was reported to have been contracted to computerise the records of the ministry of home affairs and supply voter registration cards.
“The commission wishes to clarify that in Malawi voter registration is done by the commission itself. The MEC did it alone and did not hire a foreign firm,” the commission said.