LILONGWE Malawian President Joyce Banda said on Thursday she is ready to step down if the High Court ratifies a disputed election last week and her opponent ends up as the winner, even though she still believes the vote was fraudulent.
The High Court is due to decide on Friday whether the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) should announce the result of the May 20 vote, which Banda's opponent is likely to have won, or if it should recount ballots, a process that could take two months.
The decision could raise the risk of post-election violence in the impoverished southern African country after the most hotly contested vote since the end of the one-party state two decades ago.
"I have told the MEC and related stakeholders that I will accept their decision, and the decision of the courts," Banda told Reuters in an interview in the Malawian capital Lilongwe.
"I will rest knowing that I tried to defend the rights of Malawians in a critical moment to ensure they have a leader elected in a fair and credible manner," she added.
The election was plagued by problems, with voting materials turning up hours late and ballot papers sent to the wrong end of the country. The MEC had to extend voting in some urban areas into a second day and initial counting was held up by a lack of electricity at polling stations.
Four days after the election, the MEC said a count of 30 percent of the votes cast showed that the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), headed by Peter Mutharika, brother of the late President Bingu wa Mutharika, was in the lead with 42 percent of the vote.
Banda, southern Africa's first female head of state, followed with 23 percent. The MEC has finished counting but has not announced the result. Local media reports suggest Mutharika would comfortably win if there is no recount.
After consulting two opposition parties and the Attorney General, Banda ordered the cancellation of the election, citing fraud and "rampant irregularities". She ordered a new election within 90 days but said she would not be a candidate to guarantee credibility.
The High Court overruled her decision after the DPP complained and now the court will decide whether the election result should be announced or order a recount.
The MEC has acknowledged irregularities in the vote and said last week it wants a recount.
"When I announced that the election was fraudulent, no one believed me. But today I feel vindicated that my critics and MEC have seen what I saw and are now fighting in court for a recount or re-run," Banda told Reuters.
"My role now is to see to it that the will of the people is respected in a free, fair, transparent and credible election that is why I have announced that I will not participate in the event that there is a re-run," Banda said.
Banda enjoyed huge goodwill when she came to power two years ago, after the death of President Mutharika, but her popularity waned after she was forced to impose austerity measures including a sharp devaluation, to stabilize the economy.
Her administration was hit by a $15 million corruption scandal, dubbed 'Cashgate', after large amounts of cash were discovered to have stolen by a racket involving senior public officers, businessmen and banks.
Banda, who said that she would retire from politics and concentrate on her charity work, said that she now has confidence in MEC.
"Even the MEC itself has now admitted that there are enough anomalies to warrant an individual ballot recount, and others have supported this request ... this was all I ever wanted in the first place," she said.
(Editing by Joe Brock and Xxx)