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Banda in tough race to remain Malawi president

18 May 2014, 10:01

Blantyre - Malawi's Joyce Banda, under the cloud of a huge corruption scandal and a donors' aid freeze, is fighting to hold on to the presidency in an election Tuesday in one of the closest races ever in the tiny southern African state.

Voters will decide whether to stick with former vice president Banda who came to power after the death in office of president Bingu wa Mutharika two years ago.

Her bid to be elected president in her own right is overshadowed by a scandal involving the disappearance of $30 million from the national coffers that rocked the dirt-poor country last year.

Banda, who had launched an anti-graft crusade, ordered the audit that revealed the theft -- known as Cashgate -- and charges have been brought against 68 ministers, civil servants and business people.

Banda denies any personal involvement in the scandal, saying in fact Cashgate is her trump card and will not damage her performance at the polls.

"In fact that's my greatest achievement," she told reporters before her final campaign rally, adding that the graft had been going on before she came into office.

But her opponents charge that she and her supporters have syphoned off public money to fund her campaign and handouts to voters ahead of the May 20 presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections.

Donor nations which finance a large chunk of Malawi's budget have pulled the plug on $150 million in vital aid over the scandal.

It has also led to a heated presidential race that an Afrobarometer survey shows is too close to call. Although there are 12 hopefuls, the real contest is between Banda and three other candidates, including her predecessor's brother.

"We have never really had elections that are this close, that are really hard to call," said Boniface Dulani, Afrobarometer coordinator in Malawi.

- Economy backlash -

Malawi's 64-year-old first woman leader could also face a backlash from voters over her efforts to reform the economy, which had earlier won international plaudits.

A campaign ad on state television MBC shows an old clip of IMF chief Christine Lagarde praising Banda as a mature leader fit to rule Malawi.

But her austerity reforms included a sharp devaluation of the kwacha currency which hit the poor hard in a country where nearly half of the 15 million citizens live on less than a dollar a day.

"A lot of economic measures that she has taken, that have been lauded by the international community in many respects, have eroded her domestic support," said researcher Aditi Lalbahadur of the South African Institute of International Affairs.

Blantyre voter Nickson Simango agreed. "We don't want Banda to rule this country again, things will only get worse," he said.

And of course Cashgate has given ammunition to Banda's rivals. They accuse her of abusing state resources for her campaign and of vote buying by doling out motorcycles and bags of the staple maize meal.

- Banda's rivals -

"Cashgate was very wrong," Peter Mutharika, one of her strongest challengers, told AFP. He alleges it was Banda's government that set up a syndicate to syphon the money from the treasury to her election coffers.

Mutharika, 74, is promising voters to return Malawi to "functionality" by continuing the work of his older brother, the deceased ex-president.

Detractors accuse Mutharika of being power hungry, claiming he tried to hide news of his brother's death in 2012 by flying his body around Africa in bid to prevent Banda from coming to power and to stage a constitutional coup.

Another strong contender is Lazarus Chakwera, 59, leader of the party of ex-dictator Kamuzu Banda who ran the country as a single party state for more than three decades after independence from Britain in 1964.

The fourth top candidate is Atupele Muluzi, 36, the son of retired president Bakili Muluzi.

With little difference in the candidates' promises to boost the economy, create jobs and offer agricultural subsidies, voting patterns are likely to be split along regional lines.

And despite her "rapid fall from grace after the Cashgate scandal emerged, the incumbent remains one of the strongest frontrunners in the presidential race", said Sarah Tzinieris, analyst at London-based risk advisory company Maplecroft.

The opposition to Banda is very fragmented. If she wins the election, her People's Party is unlikely to have a majority in parliament.

The presidential candidate who gets the most votes will be declared the winner, even if the score is below 50 percent.

The election is being watched closely by donors, who bankroll up to 40 percent of the country's budget.

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