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Malawi Prepares for Presidential Elections - 2004-05-19

Voters in Malawi go to the polls Thursday to choose a new president, their third.

When Malawians went to the polls 10 years ago, they had democracy on their minds. The country was emerging from three decades of dictatorship under President-for-Life Hastings Kamuzu Banda, and May of 1994 brought Malawians their first multi-party democratic elections. The main issues included press freedom and an end to the repressive tactics of the Banda regime.

The head of the University of Malawi political science department, Mustafa Kennedy Hussein, says a decade later things have changed.

"In this election people will try to choose a leader who will turn around the economic ills or the economic problems that we have been facing of late," Mr. Hussein.

In 1994, Mr. Hussein says, people had very high expectations about what their new democracy would bring them. In the 10 years since then, it has become clear that Malawi's economy is not doing well. About 60 percent of the people are still living below the poverty line.

"Some have suggested that people are poorer than they were 10 years ago," he said. "Of course, there is debate around that. All I am trying to say is that during this election, most people are looking forward to having leaders who will perform effectively and efficiently in trying to improve the economic condition of the country."

Democracy is still an issue in Malawi. President Bakili Muluzi is only reluctantly stepping down, after parliament last year rejected his attempt to amend the constitution to allow him a third term.

Mr. Muluzi is backing his chosen successor, Bingu wa Mutharika, who is running on the ruling party's ticket. Mr. Mutharika is considered a slim favorite to win the election.

"His background is strong in economic development," he said. "Some people think he is the right candidate who will turn around the economic situation in the country. However, there are still people who feel that the candidate, Dr. Bingu wa Mutharika, is still himself sort of a new person in the ruling party, and those people have expressed reservations that it might translate into the incumbent president ruling through the back door."

In addition to the ruling party candidate, four other major contenders are vying for the presidency. The opposition front-runner is Gwanda Chakuamba, who is backed by a coalition of seven opposition parties known as the Mgwirizano, or Unity, Coalition.

The coalition succeeded in having the election postponed from Tuesday to Thursday after petitioning the High Court for more time to review the voter registration list. The voters' list was revised less than two weeks ago, slashing the number of eligible voters by nearly a million.