Malawi votes in tight three-way election

Tuesday May 21 2019

Malawi election candidates

Malawian President Peter Mutharika (left) is facing a stiff challenge from Lazarus Chakwera (centre) of the former ruling party and Saulos Chilima his Vice President. Malawians vote on May 21, 2019. PHOTOS | AFP 

AFP
By AFP
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LILONGWE

Malawi goes to the polls on Tuesday after a closely-fought election campaign, with President Peter Mutharika battling to hold off two serious rivals in a race that focused on corruption allegations and economic development.

Mutharika, who has been in power since 2014, will face opposition from his own deputy Saulos Chilima and former baptist preacher Lazarus Chakwera.

"We have set Malawi on the path of progress," Mutharika, 78, told several thousand cheering supporters of his ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Blantyre at his final campaign rally at the weekend.

His bid for a second term has focused on the economy and his record of improving road and electricity infrastructure across the southeastern African country.

Under Mutharika, inflation has fallen from 23 percent to below nine percent, but still only 11 percent of the population has access to 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.

Polling starts at 06:00am (0400 GMT) on Tuesday.

CHALLENGE

Food shortages, power outages and ballooning external debt have hurt Mutharika's popularity ahead of the vote.

He faces a strong challenge from Chakwera, leader of the main opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP), who came a narrow second in the 2014 election.

Ahead of the vote, Chakwera told AFP that he expected "nothing less than victory -- we are winning."

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.

More than half of the 6.8-million registered voters are under 35.

NARROW MARGIN

Dan Banik, a politics professor at the University of Malawi, told AFP that the election posed many questions.

"What will happen when a winner is declared by a narrow margin?" he said.

"How will losing presidential candidates take defeat? Will supporters of the incumbent DPP peacefully accept losing?" he asked.

Banik said that the election commission and the courts could be severely tested by counting complaints after polling day on Tuesday, when voters will also choose lawmakers and local councillors.

In Malawi's "winner takes all" system, Mutharika won in 2014 with just 36 percent 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.

CORRUPTION
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 $3-million contract to supply food to the Malawi police.

"It will even be more uncertain and tight than last time. It could undermine the legitimacy of the winning candidate," said Michael Jana, a Malawi politics specialist at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand.

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 18 million people, has one million adults living with HIV -- one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world.

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PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES

  • PETER MUTHARIKA, 78

President Peter Mutharika won the 2014 election -- two years after his elder brother Bingu wa Mutharika died after having a heart attack while in office.

His term has been dominated by food shortages, power outages and ballooning external debt, which have damaged his popularity, as well as concerns about his health.

A former law professor at Washington University, Mutharika is a constitutional expert who served as a minister of justice, for education, science and technology, and as minister of foreign affairs.

He came to power on a promise to tackle corruption after the "Cashgate" scandal erupted in 2013, revealing massive looting from state coffers by government officials, ruling party figures and businessmen.

But he has also been tainted by graft allegations, and last year a public outcry over $200,000 that he had allegedly received from a businessman who was under investigation for a multi-million-dollar deal to supply food to the police.

As leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Mutharika has a mixed economic record since 2014. Growth has slowed from 5.7 percent to four percent but inflation has fallen sharply from 23 percent to below nine percent, according to IMF figures.

"You can see the developments that I have done across the country with your own eyes. Let the work of my hands bear witness for me," he said on the campaign trail as he opened a new road.

  • SAULOS CHILIMA, 46

Saulos Chilima was Mutharika's running mate in 2014 and became vice president -- but he then fell out with his boss.

Chilima, a youthful 46-year-old, quit the ruling DPP last year and set up the United Transformation Movement (UTM) to contest the election.

A devout Catholic, he has been a bitter critic of alleged corruption, nepotism and cronyism in the ruling party.

Prior to being hand-picked by Mutharika, Chilima was a high-earning senior executive in multi-national companies including Unilever, Coca-Cola and Airtel.

He has run a colourful and energetic youth-targeted campaign on a platform of eradicating poverty, fighting graft and creating employment. But it is uncertain if his new party can make a major impact.

His wife Mary made waves ahead of the election, releasing a slick and much-admired rap video extolling her husband's candidacy.

  • LAZARUS CHAKWERA, 64

Former evangelist Lazarus Chakwera reads Malawi's oldest party, the Malawi Congress Party, which is the main opposition party and ruled Malawi from 1964 to 1994 under Hastings Banda's one-party rule.

Chakwera led the party into the 2014 elections, coming second to Mutharika at the polls and he now hopes to go one better.

The Malawi Congress Party has lost all five presidential elections since 1994 but Chakwera has made great efforts to re-energise its base.

Prior to becoming leader of the party, Chakwera was president of the Malawi Assemblies of God from 1989 to 2013.

He was born to a subsistence farmer whose two elder sons died in infancy. He was named Lazarus after the biblical character who was raised from the dead.

In March, Chakwera secured the high-profile support of former president Joyce Banda, formerly of the ruling DPP.

Joyce Banda came to power in 2012 following the death of Bingu wa Mutharika, but she fled the country after losing the 2014 election amid graft allegations that have never led to charges. She returned last year.

ATULEPE MULUZI, 41

Atupele Muluzi, 41, is the leader of the United Democratic Front and the son of Bakili Muluzi who governed the country from 1994 until 2004.

After his party came fourth in the 2014 elections, Muluzi allied himself with the ruling DPP and is currently health minister.

He has drawn large crowds to his rallies, but his alliance with the government may have cost him votes.