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Malawi Continues Presidential Election Ballot Count - 2004-05-21

Election officials in Malawi are still counting ballots after Thursday's vote. The results have been very slow to come in, the presidential race is still far too close to call and the winner is not expected to be determined until Saturday.

More than 200 international observers fanned out around Malawi to monitor the poll, including groups from the European Union (EU), the Commonwealth group of nations and the Southern African Development Community.

The Commonwealth observers on Friday issued an interim statement on the poll that gave a mixed review.

The chairman of the Commonwealth observer group is former Tanzanian Prime Minister Justice Warioba. He told VOA that the Commonwealth observers were fairly pleased with the way things went on voting day.

?We assessed the polling itself and we think it went well,? he said. ?They followed all the procedures. People turned out, it was peaceful and I think, although there was some confusion with registration, the electoral staff did their best to enable people to cast their votes. So, we think it was a good day for Malawi.?

The Commonwealth's interim report on the election says there were serious inadequacies in the voter registration process. The Commonwealth observers also condemned what they call the gross bias of the state-owned media, whose pre-election coverage was almost entirely devoted to the ruling coalition. Mr. Warioba said that it is not yet clear how much the state media bias affected the way people cast their ballots, but the observers have serious concerns about it.

?Yes, we did, and we have mentioned those, because we found that the public media was biased in its reporting,? he noted. ?And we say, later today, we are going to meet, when our teams are back from upcountry and when we assess the whole process, we will take that into account, as well.?

Despite his concerns about some aspects of the pre-election period, Mr. Warioba said that Malawians have made a tremendous accomplishment in their 10 years of democracy, since emerging from three decades of dictatorship. ?With all the confusion that there was, if we compare the Malawi of today and the Malawi of 10 or 15 years ago, they have consolidated democracy,? he said.

Even as the observer mission was issuing its interim statement, opposition parties were growing more frustrated with the slow pace of collecting the election results. Election officials say they expect to announce the winner by Saturday, but they now say it will probably be late in the day.

The presidential race appears to be a dead heat between two candidates, Bingu wa Mutharika of the ruling UDF party and Gwanda Chakuamba of the opposition Mgwirizano Coalition.

They are vying to succeed President Bakili Muluzi, who is stepping down after two five-year terms in office.