Counting is underway in Malawi after millions of voters made their way to more than 5,000 polling stations across the country, to make their mark in this year’s tightly contested elections on Tuesday May 21.
The polling stations opened for 12 hours, closing at 6:00 PM (16:00 GMT) with preliminary results expected on Wednesday evening or on Thursday.
The Election Day is an intense day for EU Election observers in #Malawi, but their observation continues. In the coming hours they will observe the counting and the tallying process at the Constituency Tally Centers. #MalawiDecides #@5050campaignmw @eu_eeas pic.twitter.com/tMBxJej4nW
— EU EOM Malawi 2019 (@eueomMalawi) May 21, 2019
Malawi residents made their mark choosing local councillors and the country’s next leader. These elections saw the incumbent President Peter Mutharika, running for a second term, while battling to hold off two rivals in a race that focused on corruption allegations and economic development.
Mutharika, who become president in 2014, faces opposition from his own deputy Saulos Chilima and former Baptist preacher Lazarus Chakwera.
“I am happy that I have voted,” said Mutharika, 78, leader of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) after leaving a polling station in Thyolo town outside Blantyre.
“There are very long queues, but I am encouraging everyone to vote because it is the people who will decide.” Mutharika said.
This morning EU observers are in Constituency Tally Centers to observe the tallying. Below, an EU team in Maladaba, Southern Region.#Malawi #MalawiElections2019 #MalawiDecides2019 pic.twitter.com/r2HNoXg86H
— EU EOM Malawi 2019 (@eueomMalawi) May 22, 2019
His campaign for another five-year term has made clear his record of improving roads and power infrastructure.
Under Mutharika, inflation in the southeast African country has fallen from 23 percent to below nine percent, but still just 11 percent of the population has access to mains 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.
25-year-old Madalitso Willie who is a motor mechanic in Lilongwe said, “We need jobs to change our lives and that is what I hope my candidate does.”
Malawi elections: An uncertain outcome
“We have been disappointed so many times before but now we want something different,” said Violet Moyo, a 30-year-old businesswoman.
The National Initiative for Civic Education, a democracy advocacy group, reported long queues at 75 percent of polling stations, though election day appeared to have gone smoothly.
Food shortages, graft scandals and ballooning external debt have hurt Mutharika’s popularity while in office.
He must defeat a strong challenge from Lazarus Chakwera, leader of the main opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP), who came a narrow second in the 2014 election, said he has mounted a very formidable campaign unlike any other party and unlike any other year.
“We are positive about the result,” Chakwera said after casting his vote in Lilongwe, where crowds gathered to see him.
Mutharika’s other opponent, Saulos Chilima, quit the ruling party in 2018 to form the youth-focused United Transformation Movement (UTM), 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, while his wife released a popular rap video extolling his qualities to be president.
“Today we are starting a new life for Malawi.” Chilima said.
With more than half of the 6.8-million registered voters are under 35, a Malawi specialist at Ohio State University Amanda Lea Robinson says, Chilima seems to have the strongest support among the youth and in urban centres, this could be attributed to his populist election campaign as well as his relative youth.
Corruption scandals rock Malawi
Under 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.
But his government has been dogged by several high-profile cases of corruption and nepotism.
In November 2018, Mutharika himself was forced to return a $200,000 (180,000 euro) donation from a businessman facing a corruption case in a $3-million contract to supply food to the Malawi police.
Dan Banik, a politics professor at the University of Malawi says, a close vote count could test the election system and the courts.
As voters also chose lawmakers and local councillors on Tuesday, Banik asks how will losing presidential candidates take defeat? Will the supporters of the incumbent government the DPP accept losing?
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.
In March, the country was hit by torrential rains from Cyclone Idai, killing 59 people. The storm also cut a swathe through Mozambique and Zimbabwe, leaving nearly 1,000 people dead.
— african-elections (@africanelectio1) May 21, 2019
Koketso Ramorei is a journalist and news editor of SADC News with years of experience in a number of genres including sports, politics and community reporting. He has worked for a numerous publications including The Citizen Newspaper and is a former editor of a Johannesburg-based off-campus publication called The Waldorfian Times.