BLANTYRE, Malawi (AP) — Malawi's president, Joyce Banda, faced stiff challenges from a field of 12 candidates in elections Tuesday in a poor, politically fractious country that is heavily dependent on foreign donors and has struggled with corruption scandals. There were scattered reports of unrest.
Most polling stations in the African nation's fifth elections since the introduction of multiparty democracy in 1994 closed at 6 p.m. (1600GMT), but some stayed open longer to accommodate voters following delays of several hours because of rain and late deliveries of polling materials. Results were expected to start trickling in on Wednesday.
Police fired tear gas in at least one area of Blantyre, the country's biggest city, to disperse angry protesters who threw stones and ransacked a polling station where there had been a voting delay. Elsewhere in Blantyre, youths blocked some roads with boulders. Some rioters complained that opposition candidates had been left off the ballot papers, an allegation that the national election commission said was false.
Protesters blocked a road with tree branches, forcing the president to use an alternative route from the presidential palace to the polling station in the eastern town of Zomba. Malawi uses the first-past-the-post system, meaning that the candidate with the largest share of votes, no matter how small a percentage of the total votes cast, is the winner. Aside from the presidential vote, legislative and local elections were also held.
Banda, 64, was vice president and came to power in 2013 following the sudden death of President Bingu wa Mutharika. Mutharika's brother Peter Mutharika, 74, is one of the front-runners now challenging Banda, whose administration has been dogged by allegations of corruption.
A younger candidate, Atupele Muluzi, 35, the son of Malawi's first multiparty president Bakili Muluzi, appears to be attracting support from first-time voters. And a newcomer to politics, retired pastor Lazarus Chakwera, also is getting enthusiastic support. The 59-year-old minister for the Assemblies of God church is running as someone free from fraud and corruption.
"I am proud I'm not a billionaire politician and I don't intend to be one," he told The Associated Press. Chakwera is candidate for the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) that ruled Malawi as a one-party state for three decades. The party's reputation for abuses of basic rights, including detentions without trial and unexplained disappearances, during its years in power may hinder Chakwera's candidacy.
Malawi has 7.4 million registered voters in a population of 16 million. Banda won praise after becoming president by speaking out against wasteful government spending and selling off the presidential jet and a fleet of luxury vehicles. But her administration became mired in a financial scandal dubbed "cashgate" in which millions of dollars were looted from government funds by civil servants who colluded with politicians and well-connected business leaders to make payments for goods and services that were never delivered.
At least 70 people are currently facing charges surrounding the scandal, which led international donors to freeze $150 million in aid. Foreign aid makes up to 40 percent of Malawi's budget. Although not directly linked to Banda, the scandal may dent her chances of retaining power.
"The fact that 'cashgate' happened on my watch, I take full responsibility," said Banda while campaigning. "But the mere fact that it broke means we're seriously tackling corruption."