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Slow Vote Counting Angers Malawi Opposition - 2004-05-22

Vote counting is going so slowly in Malawi that some poll monitors fear they will not have results in time for the presidential inauguration, scheduled for Monday. The Associated Press reports, hundreds of angry opposition members took to the streets of Blantyre Saturday, protesting the delay, and police fired tear gas to disperse them. Meanwhile, European Union election observers say there were serious shortcomings in the poll.

The delay in getting results has angered opposition parties, which fear it could be used to manipulate the outcome of the poll. So far, it looks like a very close race between the ruling party contender, Bingu wa Mutharika, and opposition candidate Gwanda Chakuamba.

The European Union has issued an interim statement giving the poll a mixed review. The EU observers say voting on Thursday was peaceful, but the elections were marred by serious shortcomings.

The EU cites substantial bias in the state media, echoing concerns expressed Friday by the Commonwealth observers. But the EU team has gone a step further in its criticism, saying the ruling party abused state resources and handed out money to voters.

The Electoral Institute of Southern Africa, or EISA, came to a similar conclusion, according to executive director Denis Kadima.

"So, we came to the conclusion that, when it comes to freedom of casting the ballot or campaigning, we felt that the election was free," he said. "But when it comes to the fairness, equal treatment of candidates and parties, we felt that it fell short of meeting such requirements. So, to put it in a more usual jargon, I would say our mission, the EISA mission, found that the election was free, but not fair."

Mr. Kadima says there were serious problems with the voter registry, and extreme bias in the state media. He says outgoing President Bakili Muluzi used both his position and state resources to campaign for his chosen successor, Mr. Mutharika.

"The candidates for the ruling party had the advantage of using public resources for their own benefit, and the same advantage was not given to the other parties," said Denis Kadima. "Of course, most of this is based on reports that we received quite consistently, and complaints that the ruling party took advantage of its incumbency to campaign for its candidate, using public resources."

The Electoral Institute of Southern Africa deals with democracy and election issues throughout the region. The EISA observer mission in Malawi was headed by former Botswana President Ketumile Masire.

None of the interim reports from international observer missions have commented on the slowness of getting the election results in. But speaking for himself, Mr. Kadima says, concerns over the delay are legitimate, since it could leave room for manipulation of the results.