Malawians Vote as Graft Crackdown Threatens Banda’s Reign

Malawians began voting on whether to give Joyce Banda five more years as president or choose one of her 11 rivals amid opinion polls showing the closest election since the advent of multiparty democracy in 1994.

Polls opened at 6 a.m. local time and were extended by three hours in some areas to 9 p.m. after delays caused by lack of voting materials, Malawi Election Commission Chairman Maxon Mbendera told reporters in Blantyre, the commercial capital. About 7.5 million people have registered to cast ballots.

Banda, founder of the People’s Party, alienated key allies after firing her cabinet in October and asking international investigators to probe allegations that as much as 30 percent of state funds were being embezzled. Surveys show Democratic Progressive Party leader Peter Mutharika, the United Democratic Front’s Atupele Muluzi and Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party all have a chance of unseating her in a single-round contest that’s decided by who gets the most votes.

“I have done the best I could and I hope Malawians noticed my achievements,” Banda told reporters today in Domasi, about 70 kilometers (44 miles) east of Blantyre. Banda said she helped boost Malawi’s growth rate and plug the nation’s food deficit.

Long lines formed outside most polling stations, some of which opened late because they weren’t properly equipped. People burned tyres and destroyed property in the Blantyre township of Ndirande, one of the areas affected by delays.

No Ink

“I haven’t voted yet because there is no ink here and people are disgruntled,” Chifundo Phiri, who lined up to cast his ballot in Blantyre, said by phone. “People are becoming impatient.”

The country’s electoral commission must address anomalies that threaten to mar the vote, Ken Ndanga, a spokesman for the UDF, said by phone from Machinga.

An online survey of 79,030 people published by the Nyasa Times on April 15 found 30 percent backing for Banda, 29 percent for Chakwera and 22 percent for Muluzi, the son of former president Bakili Muluzi. Mutharika received 19 percent support in the poll, which had a 2 percent sampling error, the London-based news website said.

“Most sources inside and outside of Malawi believe the presidential race is now too close to call but consider Ms. Banda a slight favorite,” Gary van Staden, a Johannesburg-based political analyst at NKC Independent Economists, said in e-mailed comments on May 13. “Many in Malawi are not happy with Ms. Banda, but seem to believe her main opponents, Mr. Mutharika and Mr. Muluzi, are worse.”

Local Appeal

Twenty-seven percent of 2,400 adults surveyed by Afrobarometer between March 23 and April 7 backed Mutharika for president, while 21 percent supported Chakwera and 19 percent favored Banda. The poll was inconclusive because 15 percent of respondents didn’t disclose a preference, the Accra, Ghana-based research company said.

Twelve parties fielded candidates for 193 seats in concurrent parliamentary elections.

Regina Kululasi said she supported Banda because she came from the area close to where she voted at Domasi.

“She is one of us,” Kululasi said. “She has also delivered in the two years that she has been president.”

Banda, 64, became Africa’s second female president when she succeeded Bingu wa Mutharika, Peter’s brother, who died in office in April 2012. She devalued the kwacha and raised fuel prices a month after taking office, unlocking aid from donors such as the U.K. and the International Monetary Fund and sparking nationwide protests over rising prices.

Fighting Poverty

Banda says she will continue to combat graft, reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign aid and grant subsidies to poor farmers if reappointed, while Mutharika has pledged to improve food security and controls over state finances. UDF leader Muluzi, 35, said he will combat poverty, create jobs and increase farm output if elected. Chakwera plans to overhaul the government to improve service delivery and provide new roads and hospitals.

Inedi Wecha, a farmer from Domasi, said she voted for Muluzi.

“I want to have a president who will promote agriculture, being a farmer myself,” she said.

The kwacha has weakened 15 percent against the dollar since the beginning of 2013, the sixth-worst performer among 23 African currencies tracked by Bloomberg.

About half of Malawi’s 15 million people live on less than $1 a day, according to the IMF. The country is Africa’s top exporter of burley tobacco, a low-grade variety of the crop. Limbe Leaf Tobacco Co., a unit of U.S.-based Universal Corp., Alliance One International Inc. and Japan Tobacco Inc. are among buyers in the nation.

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