Malawi president takes lead in election count

Voters queue to cast their ballots in Malawi's presidential and legislative elections, in Lilongwe, Malawi, in this May 21, 2019 file photo. — Reuters

BLANTYRE — Malawian President Peter Mutharika leads his main rival in this week's election, winning more than 40 percent of votes cast, according to figures released on Thursday with three-quarters of votes counted.

Mutharika, who heads the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and is fighting for a second five-year term, has 40.49 percent of the vote, the Electoral Commission said.

"It feels excellent. The results are within our predictions but certainly we are not naive enough to celebrate before the final whistle is blown," DDP campaign chief Ben Phiri said.

Opposition leader Lazarus Chakwera had 35.44 percent, while Vice President Saulos Chilima was on 18 percent, according to the partial results.

Mutharika, 78, campaigned for a second five-year term on his record of improving Malawi's scant road and power infrastructure.

But his government has been dogged by several high-profile cases of corruption and nepotism.

Chakwera on Wednesday warned of alleged attempts to rig Tuesday's election, saying his Malawi Congress Party (MCP) was conducting its own count that showed he was ahead.

The southeastern African country has around 6.8 million potential voters, with more than half aged under 35.

Turnout data has not been published after Tuesday's elections, which were also for lawmakers and local councilors.

The European Union observer mission described the vote as "well-managed, inclusive, transparent and competitive".

But it said that tension during the campaign "was not helped by various claims of 'rigging'".

Political analyst Rafiq Hajat said that the count could still be close.

He added that Mutharika's team had "the incumbency advantage and the disposal of public resources at their disposal and also the public media that works in their favour".

Malawi has a "winner-takes-all" system and in 2014 Mutharika won with just 36 percent of the vote.

He came to power vowing to tackle corruption after the "Cashgate" scandal erupted a year earlier, revealing massive looting from state coffers.

But he has also faced corruption allegations.

Last November, Mutharika was forced to return a $200,000 (180,000 euro) donation from a businessman facing a corruption case in a $3-million contract to supply food to the Malawi police.

At his final campaign rally last weekend, Mutharika told supporters in Blantyre: "My priorities for this country are development and building skills."

Former evangelist Chakwera, 64, came a close second to Mutharika in the 2014 polls.

Chilima was a member of the ruling party but quit last year to form the youth-focused United Transformation Movement, while staying on as vice president.

Under Malawi law, the president cannot fire the vice president.

Malawi won independence from colonial ruler 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. — AFP