BLANTYRE/LILONGWE, Malawi (Reuters) - Malawians on Tuesday voted in presidential and parliamentary elections seen as a tough test for President Peter Mutharika who is running against the deputy president and a former pastor who heads the opposition.
Malawi is dependent on foreign aid and is frequently beset by drought which threatens the lives of thousands of people.
Former law professor Mutharika, 78, oversaw infrastructure improvements and a slowdown in inflation in his first five-year term, but critics accuse him of corruption and cronyism.
Mutharika refutes those accusations. He is popular in rural areas for his government’s agricultural subsidy program, but elsewhere some people want change.
“People should be free to vote as they like. That is democracy,” Mutharika told reporters at a polling station in Thyolo in his home district.
He cast his vote accompanied by senior figures from his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
Voters will cast ballots for president, parliament and ward councillors. Polls close around 1600 GMT and counting is expected to take days.
“I have a strong feeling that the choice I made will carry the day,” said Tima Nyirongo, 31, a mother of two who voted at a polling station in Blantyre, the southern African country’s commercial capital.
Analysts expect a tight presidential race between Mutharika, Deputy President Saulos Chilima and Lazarus Chakwera, who heads opposition group the Malawi Congress Party. There are no reliable opinion polls.
Chilima, 46, a former telecoms executive, quit the DPP last year and formed his own party, the United Transformation Movement, to run against Mutharika.
He has targeted young voters with a vibrant social media campaign featuring hip-hop videos.
“This country deserves better,” Chilima said as he voted with his wife Mary and some aides in Lilongwe, another large city. “We’ve been at peace for 54 years and counting and we needed to see a much better economy and much happier people.”
Malawi won independence from colonial ruler Britain in 1964.
Chilima and Chakwera, 64, have both promised to crack down on corruption if elected.
Corruption is a major issue at the ballot box after high-profile graft scandals.
One, referred to as “Cashgate,” erupted in the months leading up to the 2014 elections and involved the looting of millions of dollars of public funds.
Last year local media reports alleged Mutharika benefited from a $4-million contract to supply food to the police. Mutharika said those reports were “fake news”.
Chakwera lost out to Mutharika at the last presidential vote and has formed an alliance with Mutharika’s predecessor, Joyce Banda, this time.
Writing by Alexander Winning; Editing by Janet Lawrence