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Malawi Votes in Presidential Election - 2004-05-20

Voters in Malawi have gone to the polls to choose their third president since independence. Although there were reports of scattered problems, most of the voting appeared to be going smoothly.

A spokesman for the Malawi Electoral Commission, Fegus Lipenga, says voting appears to have gone well in much of the country, despite a few snags early in the day.

"As a commission we are sort of pleased with the early reports of orderly and peaceful polling," he said. "So as a commission, we have so far identified problems in 15 of the more than 7,000 polling centers. All but one of these issues has been resolved."

The election was originally supposed to be held Tuesday, but the main opposition coalition convinced the High Court to delay voting to give the parties more time to examine the newly revised voter registration list. The voters' roll was revised less than two weeks ago, slashing the number of eligible voters by nearly one million.

Mr. Lipenga says the problems appear to have been ironed out, and just to be sure, each voting station had three separate copies of the voters roll.

"So if your name is not found in the computerized voters roll, you have to check your name in the manual voters roll, or the record card," he explained. "So, so far, the problem of the voters register, which was being magnified during the inspection of the voters roll, it appears this problem is no longer there."

Long lines were reported at polling stations early in the morning. Mr. Lipenga says most of the voters had cast their ballots by midday.

The earliest results are expected in Blantyre late Thursday. The electoral commission expects to announce the final results on Saturday.

It was only 10 years ago that Malawians held their first multi-party democratic election after three decades of dictatorship under self-proclaimed President-for-Life Hastings Kamuzu Banda.

The head of the University of Malawi political science department, Mustafa Kennedy Hussein, says Malawians still get excited about democracy.

"Elections are always an exciting event in Malawi, in view of the background that for the past 30 years, people did not have the chance of voting during the dictatorial rule of Dr. Banda," he said. "So they always look up to any election as an opportunity to express their wishes and to choose the leaders that they want."

One legacy of the Banda era is apparently bias in the state media, which was supposed to have disappeared when Malawi became a democracy.

The electoral commission monitored and analyzed media coverage of the campaign period to make sure it was fair and balanced. But a consultant from the Commonwealth group of nations, Tim Neale, who has been assisting with the monitoring project since early February, says there was a disturbing trend regarding the state-run radio station.

Mr. Neale says 92 percent of the station's election coverage was devoted to the ruling coalition, and only eight percent to all of the opposition parties. The figures were slightly better for state TV, but still overwhelmingly biased toward the parties in power.

"People have said to me... well, what effect will this have on the outcome of the election? And I really can't answer that. I don't know," he said. "The observe... these people are spread all over the country, and they're talking to people, and I think their reports will say whether the media turns out to have been a factor or not. I can't think it could have no influence on the outcome."

Mr. Neale says some of the independent commercial radio stations had more balanced coverage, including VOA affiliate Capital FM, which topped the list with a 50-50 split. But the commercial stations mainly broadcast in the major cities and just do not reach as many people, since roughly 80 percent of Malawians live in rural areas.

The Malawi Electoral Commission is legally mandated to ensure balanced election coverage, but Mr. Neale says the law does not say how the commission is supposed to enforce it if a station fails to comply.