Blantyre – Malawians came out in droves on Monday to elect a new president in polls overshadowed by corruption and a devastating cyclone that left dozens dead and thousands displaced in the region.
Voters formed long queues at more than 5,000 polling stations, indicating a high turnout in an election pitting incumbent Peter Mutharika of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) against former Christian pastor Lazarus Chakwera of the opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP).
Of the seven candidates competing for the highest office, Mutharika’s estranged deputy Saulos Chilima is expected to take the youth vote with his United Transformation Movement (UTM) and could be a surprise challenger to the two leading candidates.
Mutharika voted at a primary school in his home town of Thyolo near Malawi’s commercial capital, Blantyre.
“To vote for leaders of one’s choice is very important in a democracy. It means people are voting for their future,” he said after casting his ballot.
Mutharika has promised a leaner cabinet and better infrastructure, but his first term in office saw failures in curbing corruption and a series of albino murders that have made headlines internationally.
Chakwera meanwhile cast his vote in the capital Malawi, saying he was confident the polls would be free and fair.
“We must trust our democratic systems, and we are certain that the Malawi Electoral Commission will do the best,” Chakwera told journalists in front of the polling station.
There was a brief upheaval at a voting station in Lilongwe on Tuesday morning when Vice President Chilima’s name was missing from the voters’ roll.
It soon emerged that Chilima had mistakenly been registered in another district and election officials had allowed him to cast his vote in the capital to minimize the disruption.
The 6.8 million registered voters will also elect a new parliament and local government councillors in the poverty-stricken former British colony.
About 70% of Malawi’s population of roughly 20 million people live under 2 dollars a day, according to the International Monetary Fund.
The southern African nation is also still reeling from Cyclone Idai, which caused dozens of deaths and devastation in Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe in March.
Polling stations were set to close at 6 pm (1600 GMT), with results expected within the next few days.