Page last updated at 12:56 GMT, Tuesday, 19 May 2009 13:56 UK

Malawi votes in knife-edge poll

Malawi voters
Amid long queues at poll stations, a huge turnout is forecast

Voting has been brisk in Malawi's general election, with analysts suggesting the presidential race is too close to call.

Seven candidates are vying for the top job but it is being viewed as a two-horse race between incumbent Bingu Wa Mutharika and his opponent, John Tembo.

The southern African country is also electing a new parliament.

Mr Tembo is backed by ex-President Bakili Muluzi, whose attempt to run for a third term was blocked by the courts.

While it is still among the poorest nations, Malawi has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world and Western donors hope its relative stability over the past decade will not be disrupted.

'Huge turnout'

Long queues have been reported as nearly six million voters cast their ballots at almost 4,000 polling stations around the country.

John Tembo (left) and Bingu Wa Mutharika (right)
It's my right to choose the president that's going to take us through five years of development, better education and everything possible we need for a better Malawi

The BBC's Chakuchanya Harawa in the capital Lilongwe says when he arrived pre-dawn at one voting booth two hours before it opened, there was already a line of waiting electors.

It was a similar picture in the northern city of Mzuzu, says the BBC's Joel Nkhoma.

After casting his ballot in his home village of Goliati in southern Malawi, Mr Mutharika said: "There is a large turnout, people exercising their right to vote," reported AFP news agency.

The opposition has raised concerns about the possibility of vote-rigging, but poll officials said there had been no problems.

Malawi Electoral Commission Chairman Justice Ananstasia Msosa told Reuters news agency in Lilongwe: "If this trend continues, we are projecting a huge turnout compared to the last election in 2004."

The election follows a long political feud between Mr Mutharika and his predecessor Mr Muluzi that has caused riots, a failed impeachment bid, parliamentary deadlock and coup plot claims.

Mr Muluzi lost a court battle on Saturday to be able to stand for a third term, having argued in vain that after a break of five years, he should be able to run for office again.

His United Democratic Front has endorsed Mr Tembo, leader of the Malawi Congress Party, which governed the country for 30 years.

Mr Mutharika fell out with his one-time backer in 2004, accusing Mr Muluzi of trying to stonewall an anti-corruption drive.

5.9m voters, 3,900 poll booths
Seven presidential contenders
1,100 candidates for 193 seats
Malawi GDP $313 (£200) per head

Mr Muluzi is being tried on charges of siphoning $10m (£6.5m) from donor countries, but insists the charges are politically motivated.

Mr Mutharika quit his rival's party in 2005 to form his own Democratic Progressive Party and lead a minority government.

The 75-year-old former World Bank official, who has won praise from Western donors, says he only wants one more term and will then retire.

Mr Tembo, 77, once a leading figure in the regime of the late dictator Hastings Kamuzu Banda, is hoping the election will bring to an end 15 years in opposition.

Poverty, agriculture and health care are the big issues for Malawi, where two-thirds of the population lives on less than a dollar a day and Aids has orphaned an estimated one million children.

But the BBC's Raphael Tenthani in Blantyre says it is thought voters will be likely to cast their ballot along regional and ethnic lines, with the issues taking a back seat.

In the parliamentary election, about 1,100 candidates, including a record number of women, are standing but no party is expected to win an outright majority.

Final results are expected by Thursday.

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