Polls have opened in Malawi after a closely fought election campaign as President Peter Mutharika battles to hold off two serious rivals in a race that focused on corruption allegations and economic development.
Polling stations opened at 6am (04:00 GMT) and will close at 6pm (16:00 GMT) with around 6.8 million registered voters eligible to elect a new parliament and local government councillors at more than 5,000 polling stations across the landlocked country.
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.
Mutharika, who has been in power since 2014, faces opposition from his own deputy Saulos Chilima and former Baptist preacher Lazarus Chakwera.
His bid for a second term highlights the improvements he said he has made to the economy as well as the road and electricity infrastructure across the southeastern African country.
Under Mutharika, inflation has fallen from 23 percent to below nine percent, but still only 11 percent of the population has access to electricity.
Food shortages, power outages and ballooning external debt have hurt Mutharika’s popularity while in office.
|Some 6.8 million people are eligible to take part in the election [Patrick Meinhardt/AFP]|
In the country’s commercial capital, Blantyre, there were long queues of voters even before polling stations opened, hoping their vote will bring about a change in the country.
“I want change because this country is blessed with mineral resources and agricultural production. But due to corruption, we are the fourth poorest country in the world,” Wangisani Elias Mizedya, 42, told Al Jazeera.
“Resources are not evenly distributed according to one’s abilities. So I want a country that will deliver opportunities to their citizens. I want to vote for leaders that will work hard for this country and deliver results,” Mizedya, a trader, added.
Steve Nkhoma, a civil servant, told Al Jazeera he is hoping to see improvement in the living standards of Malawians after the election.
“There is high unemployment and salaries are low so I hope that the next government can change these things for us. There is also lack of security this is why people living with Albinism are being killed. I want my vote to change that,” said Nkhoma.
Mutharika faces a strong challenge from Chakwera, leader of the main opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP), who finished a narrow second in the 2014 election.
Mutharika’s other opponent, Chilima, quit the ruling party last year to form the youth-focused United Transformation Movement, while staying on as vice president.
More than half of the 6.8 million registered voters are under 35.
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 credentials to be president.
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.