Malemia, Malawi (PANA) – Voting has opened in Malawi’s fifth elections since the advent of multi-party politics in the country in 1994.
Voting started at 6 a.m. (local time) in most polling centres but some centres delayed opening due to rains and logistical glitches.
By 9 a.m. some centres were still not opened, leading to agitation by voters, some of whom braved the rains and dropping temperatures.
Joyce Banda, 64, Africa’s second female president who came to power in 2013 following the sudden death of President Bingu wa Mutharika, is facing a stiff challenge from Mutharika’s younger brother, Prof. Peter Mutharika, 74, who is the candidate for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
Atupele Muluzi, the 35-year-old son of Malawi’s first multiparty president Bakili Muluzi, is also a front-runner, riding on the wave of first-time voters.
But it is the surprise candidate, retired pastor Lazarus Chakwera, who is causing excitement. Most analysts say he is the man to watch in these elections.
Untainted by the corruption and fraud that have characterised Malawi’s post one-party politics, the 59-year-old former Assemblies of God president in Malawi may cause an upset.
“I am proud I’m not a billionaire politician and I don’t intend to be one,” he said.
Chakwera is the candidate for the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) that ruled Malawi for three decades before ceding power to Muluzi’s United Democratic Front (UDF) in the southern Africa’s first multi-party elections in 1994.
The atrocities of MCP’s 30 years of excesses in power, characterised by detentions without trial and unexplained disappearances of political opponents of founding president Hastings Kamuzu Banda, may be an albatross around Chakwera’s neck.
But the cleric-turned politician is still upbeat.
“Dr. Banda apologised for all the wrongs associated with the MCP. Malawians are not unforgiving. It’s time to move on,” he said.
The People’s Party (PP) administration of President Banda, who is no relation of Dr. Banda, is reeling under the worst financial scandal to rock government in Malawi’s 50 years as an independent country.
Dubbed ‘cashgate’, millions of dollars were looted from government coffers by civil servants who colluded with politicians and well-connected business captains to make payments for goods and services not rendered to government.
Although not directly linked to her, ‘cashgate’ may dent her chances of retaining power.
But she has put up a brave face, saying ”the fact that cashgate happened on my watch I take full responsibility…but the mere fact that it broke means we’re seriously tackling corruption.”
So far, at least 70 people are in court answering charges surrounding ‘cashgate’. The scandal led to the freezing of US$150 million in budgetary support which make up to 40 percent of Malawi’s budget.
On his part, Mutharika is also upbeat.
“We want to start where my brother had left off,” said the constitutional law professor on sabbatical from Washington State University.
The youthful Muluzi, who campaigned on what he dubbed ‘Agenda for Change’, also thinks he has what it takes to move Malawi forward.
“Malawians are ready for change,” he said. “We have to change the way we do things. It’s no longer business as usual; it’s business unusual.”
But his father’s economic record when he ruled Malawi between 1994 and 2004 was characterised by widespread corruption. Besides, at 35, many analysts believe Muluzi is not ready for big league politics.
In all, there are 12 presidential candidate, including two women – Banda and businesswoman Helen Singh.
Polling is scheduled to close at 6 p.m. and counting is expected to commence immediately.