BLANTYRE, MALAWI - Foreign observers of Malawi's presidential, parliamentary and local elections issued a preliminary assessment Thursday, saying that although the process was peaceful, it lacked a level playing field.
Incumbent leader Peter Mutharika held a small lead in the presidential election, partial results showed. About a quarter of the votes remained to be counted, leaving challenger Lazarus Chakwera some room for hope.
The European Union observer mission said the Malawi Electoral Commission organized the elections well, but the pre-election period was marked with tension.
"What we see as a problem," said Miroslav Poche, the EU mission's chief observer, "is the abuse of state resources and also bias by state media."
The EU mission also bemoaned attacks on opposition politicians ahead of the voting.
The leader of the Commonwealth observer team, former South African President Thabo Mbeki, said the election was well-managed but that it was premature to declare it fair.
"We are not making any judgments — that's a matter that will arise later," he said. "When everything has been done, then it will become possible for the observer team to say, 'Now, given everything we have heard and seen, it is possible to say these elections were fair,' and whatever."
Lack of confidence
However, some opposition politicians said they had lost confidence in the vote-counting process under way at the main tally center in Blantyre.
Eisenhower Mkaka, secretary-general of the main opposition Malawi Congress Party, said the party would not accept the results if its candidate, Lazarus Chakwera, lost. Chakwera was about 5 percentage points behind Mutharika in the early vote count announced Thursday by the Electoral Commission.
"We have got a state-of-the-art tally center which is actually collecting results from across the country," Mkaka said, "and from what we have collected, we are quite comfortable that as the Malawi Congress Party, we are winning and therefore any results that go against what we have will not be accepted."
However, the campaign director of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, Ben Phiri, said it was premature for the party to say anything until the winner was announced.
"We got prepared and we did what we could [to win the polls]," he said. "And we mobilized our people to go to vote. It's just hours away from declaring who the winner is, and DPP, we are good to go."
The Malawi Electoral Commission is expected to announce the final results by May 29.