Malawi elections: Will Joyce Banda hang on to power?

Supporters of Malawi's incumbent President Joyce Banda cheer during her final campaign rally at Songani village on the outskirts of the city of Zomba, the former capital of Malawi on 17 May 2014 President Joyce Banda's supporters are confident of victory

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Tuesday'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.

Malawian traditional dancers perform during the last campaign rally of presidential candidate Peter Mutharika on 17 May 2014 in Goliati Traditional dancers have been entertaining crows at campaigning rallies
Malawian presidential candidate Peter Mutharika (C) greets supporters as he arrives to address supporters at his final campaign rally on 17 May 2014, in Goliati, Malawi Peter Mutharika is a strong contender for the presidency

These elections are also significant because this is the first time in Malawi's history that the country is holding presidential, parliamentary and local government elections on the same day. The last local government elections were held 14 years ago.

And with polls just hours away from opening many voters are still undecided.

'Cash gate'

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.

Malawi's outgoing president looks to the future ahead of elections

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.

Malawian women sit outside a shop in a market of a shanty town, on 18 May 2014 in Blantyre, Malawi Malawi is one of the poorest countries in Africa

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.

'Rumour-mongering'

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.

Malawian workers prepare tobacco leaves to be packed and stored ahead of an auction at a tobacco farm on 20 May 2014 in Zomba Municipality, Malawi. Tobacco production in Malawi is one of the nation's largest sources of income. Tobacco production is one of Malawi's largest sources of income.

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.

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