Page last updated at 14:53 GMT, Monday, 18 May 2009 15:53 UK

Tight race in Malawi poll

Supporters of incumbent President Bingu wa Mutharika light candles
Supporters of incumbent President Bingu wa Mutharika light candles

By Raphael Tenthani
BBC News, Blantyre

Malawi's 5.9 million registered voters go to the polls on Tuesday in the country's tightest ever election race.

The battle pits the incumbent President Bingu wa Mutharika against a united opposition, in the culmination of the incessant political fighting that has consumed this southern African country in recent years.

The 75-year-old economist-turned-politician has John Zenus Ungapake Tembo, 77, as his main challenger.

Grace Mhango, a recently-graduated student, said as a first-time voter she is excited to cast her vote.

"I am excited; my vote is on JZU [as Mr Tembo is popularly known]," she said.

"Our university has run down; diet is poor, the library has no books... but I hear when Tembo was chairman of the University Council, the cafeteria was like a three-star hotel."

Back to the future

Mr Tembo's Malawi Congress Party (MCP) has been the country's main opposition since it lost power 15 years ago, having been at the helm of Malawi politics for 30 years, under the one-party dictatorship of founding President Hastings Kamuzu Banda.

John Tembo
I belong to the past, I belong to the present and I also belong to the future
John Tembo

A former teacher and pastor's son, Mr Tembo held a number of important positions during the Banda regime, including being the Governor of the Reserve Bank of Malawi for a record 13 years.

His MCP has now joined forces with the United Democratic Front (UDF), led by former President Bakili Muluzi, who has widespread support in the populous Southern Region.

"The MCP brings experience to Malawi politics," said Mr Tembo.

"I belong to the past, I belong to the present and I also belong to the future.

"We are well geared and determined to bring genuine socio-economic development to Malawi."

UDF leader Mr Muluzi had originally intended to contest the presidential elections himself.

But he was prevented by the Malawi Electoral Commission because he had already served for the constitutional two five-year terms.

After his appeal was rejected at the weekend, Mr Muluzi vowed to do his utmost to oust his friend-turned-foe Mr Mutharika "for being ungrateful".

It was he who had personally anointed Mr Mutharika to lead the UDF at the 2004 polls.

But the new president jumped ship nine months into his presidency, accusing the UDF of frowning on his tough anti-corruption drive.

Bubble burst

"Bingu would never have been president had it not been for me," the former president told the BBC.

Muluzi told us to vote for Bingu, now he is saying Bingu is bad... I am confused
Mary Banda,

Fruit seller, Blantyre

"I cannot fail to deflate a tyre I personally inflated. Come Tuesday, he is out of the State House.

"Even if I am not taking part in these elections, I still have influence on their outcome.

"I have teamed up with the right honourable JZU Tembo because we want to unite the country that has been divided because of Bingu's disregard to the rule of law. We want to restore order."

Some feel the ruling to ban Mr Muluzi from standing may actually work against President Mutharika - by bringing together his two main opposition parties in one powerful alliance of voters.

Mr Mutharika won last time with just 36% of the vote, as his rivals were divided.

However, there are signs that some Muluzi supporters have been left disillusioned by his apparent "flip-flop" from Mr Mutharika to Mr Tembo.

Mary Banda, a fruit-seller in Blantyre's main market, told the BBC that she will not cast her vote because - as a UDF supporter - she is confused about Mr Muluzi's stand.

Bakili Muluzi
Former president Bakili Muluzi is backing opposition leader John Tembo

"In 2004, Muluzi told us to vote for Bingu; now he is saying Bingu is bad, vote for Tembo. I am confused so I won't vote," she said.

The UDF leader is also tainted by allegations of corruption.

He is one of several former senior government officials who are currently answering fraud cases.

Mr Muluzi stands accused of siphoning about $11m into his personal bank account from donor countries, while president - charges he denies.

Meanwhile, Mr Muluzi and several of his political allies, such as Vice-President Cassim Chilumpha, are also answering treason cases, for allegedly plotting to assassinate the president.

Mr Muluzi accuses Mr Mutharika of arresting opponents with reckless abandon on "trumped up charges like fraud, corruption and treason".

However, John Yeremiah, a farmer from the southern district of Chiradzulu, said he sees no reason for a change in government.

"Bingu has improve roads and he is fighting for good tobacco prices," he said.

"Mr Tembo has been in power before under Dr Banda. I am voting for Bingu."

Handy work

Mr Mutharika, who founded his own Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), believes he will have his mandate to rule extended because his presidency has translated into real progress for ordinary people.

President Bingu wa Mutharika
I will let the work of my hands speak for me
Bingu wa Mutharika

"I will let the work of my hands speak for me," he said.

"Apart from removing me, the opposition has no agenda for the nation. Within the shortest of times we have built several roads and other infrastructure."

Mr Mutharika, an India and US-trained development economist, has been praised by Western donor nations for his fiscal discipline.

He has overseen economic grow of more than 8% - the world's highest this year, after the oil-rich gulf state of Qatar.

Should he lose on Tuesday, Mr Mutharika, who had a long career at the World Bank and the Economic Commission of Africa, promised he would retire from active politics.

In all, seven candidates - including Malawi's first ever woman presidential aspirant Loveness Gondwe and an independent, James Nyondo - are running for president.

The country's 5.9 million voters are also electing members of the 193-member parliament. Results are expected by Thursday, 21 May.

Analysts say this is the closest election since the re-introduction of multiparty politics in 1994. But not all voters are excited.

"These people are the same. I don't care who wins," said Moses Bauleni, a vegetable seller, in Blantyre.

"Whoever is in State House, we will still remain poor."

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