LILONGWE (Reuters) - Malawians voted on Tuesday in the most closely contested election since the end of the one-party state two decades ago, with incumbent Joyce Banda, southern Africa’s first female head of state, facing no fewer than 11 challengers.
There were chaotic scenes at some polling stations in the capital, Lilongwe, and the commercial hub of Blantyre as voting materials failed to arrive or ballot papers were sent to the wrong end of the country.
Many of Banda’s rivals have already cried foul, saying they have unearthed plots to rig the ballot, although diplomats say they have seen no credible evidence of vote-rigging.
Delays and mess-ups - for whatever reason - are likely to fuel the sense of unease and distrust and increase the chances of post-election violence in the normally peaceful nation should any candidates reject the result.
In the absence of reliable opinion polls, most analysts rank People’s Party leader Banda as favorite because of her popularity in rural areas where she has been rolling out development projects and farm subsidies.
The election commission said it was working to iron out the problems. After casting her ballot in the southern village of Malemia, Banda urged all sides to keep calm.
“I’m thankful that the campaign period was peaceful and am urging all Malawians to vote peacefully today without any incident or loss of life,” she told reporters.
However, there were angry scenes at a polling center at a school in a Blantyre township, with hundreds of voters milling around for several hours while officials waited in vain for election materials to arrive.
“There’s no ink. We’re still waiting for the consignment,” one of the officials told the frustrated crowd.
Banda came to power in the landlocked, impoverished nation two years ago after her predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika, died in office.
She initially enjoyed huge goodwill from the many who hated Mutharika’s autocratic style, and won the backing of foreign donors and the International Monetary Fund when she pushed through austerity measures, including a sharp devaluation of the kwacha, to stabilize the farming-dependent economy.
However, more recently her administration’s reputation has been hit by a $15 million graft scandal, dubbed ‘Cashgate’ after the discovery of large amounts of money in the car of a senior government official, that has soured relations with donors.
More than 80 people have been arrested and a former cabinet minister has been dismissed and put on trial for money laundering and attempted murder. But urban voters in particular have criticized Banda’s response as ponderous and ineffectual.
Banda’s main challenger is Lazarus Chakwera, an evangelical pastor who retired from the church last year to lead the Malawi Congress Party, the rejuvenated party of the late Hastings Banda, who ran the former British colony with an iron first in its first three decades of independence.
Mutharika’s younger brother Peter is also running as the head of the Democratic Progressive Party. Another prominent contender is Atupele Muluzi, son of former president Bakili Muluzi, who took over from Hastings Banda in 1994.
Additional reporting by Frank Phiri; Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Andrew Heavens