Blantyre, May 20, 2014 – Today’s election in Malawi is one of Africa’s most competitive – the closest since the re-introduction of multi-party politics in Malawi in 1993. Four of the 12 candidates in the presidential race have a chance of winning.
They are preacher-turned-politician Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), Atupele Muluzi representing the United Democratic Front (UDF), Peter Mutharika of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the incumbent Joyce Banda representing the People’s Party (PP).
Mr Mutharika is the younger brother of former President Bingu wa Mutharika while Mr Atupele is the son of ex-President Bakili Muluzi. None of the four has contested a presidential election before.
Joyce Banda is one of three of female presidents in Africa and the current chairwoman of the regional body, the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
She became president following the sudden death of Bingu wa Mutharika in April 2012. If she loses she will become the first serving female African head of state and first serving Malawian president to have lost an election.
The economy is one of the issues that could decide the election. As recently as 2008, Malawi was second only to Qatar as the world’s fastest-growing economy.
But by the time President Mutharika died, the economy was in tatters. Inflation was rising at a fast pace, foreign reserves were depleted and there was a huge fiscal deficit.
As one of the world’s poorest countries, Malawi’s economy is heavily dependent on aid. Donors provide 40% of Malawi’s budget.
They had frozen aid to the country after accusing the Mutharika administration of bad governance.
The former president ignored donor demands and introduced a budget aimed at raising revenue internally to cover the financial shortfall. It failed.
When Ms Banda came to power, aid taps reopened. Her economic reforms caused prices to soar, hitting the public hard.
However, there were signs that the economy was recovering. It grew by 6.1% in 2013, compared with 1.9% in 2012 when Ms Banda took office.
But the donors withheld aid again, over a scandal dubbed “Cash gate” in which millions of dollars worth of public money were allegedly stolen by civil servants.
The withdrawal has affected the delivery of some government services. Not surprisingly, debates around aid dominated the election campaign. Both donors and Malawi’s politicians now agree the country must move towards independence from aid.
The candidature of Mr Muluzi, 35, in the presidential race forced Ms Banda and Mr Mutharika to choose youthful running-mates.
The youth vote has therefore assumed prominence in these elections. Young people constitute up to 60% of Malawi’s population and many will be voting for the first time. Malawi’s youth lack opportunities.
The election campaign has largely been peaceful but the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) encountered several challenges ahead of the polls.
For example, they had to suspend the voter verification exercise after it was discovered that many names on the voters’ roll were missing. That has been sorted out.
Concern had been raised regarding the safety of ballot papers, prompting the MEC to assure Malawians they had several anti-counterfeit security features.
MEC chairperson Justice Maxon Mbendera told the BBC they have taken every step to ensure they are well-prepared.
He dismissed allegations of rigging as rumour-mongering and said he was confident the elections will be free and fair.
Hundreds of local and international observers are monitoring the vote. Malawi uses the first-past-the post electoral system – the presidential candidate with the most votes is declared the winner and there is no provision for a run-off.
In the parliamentary race, 193 seats are up for grabs. Candidates will also contest 462 local council wards.
Up to 7.5 million Malawians have registered to vote and, with the elections being extremely competitive, a high turn-out is expected.