As Malawians head to vote, can President Joyce Banda survive?

The colorful and confident Ms. Banda suffered a 'Cashgate' scandal -- but the president who cut her own salary is now running on her clean-up of government.

Raphael Tenthani/AP
Background from left to right, Chief Justice Richard Banda, his wife, Malawi President Joyce Banda, and younger sister Anjimile Mtila-Oponyo, join a voting queue to cast their votes in the eastern district of Zomba, Malawi, Tuesday, May 20, 2014. Africa's second female president Joyce Banda is facing stiff challenges from a field of 12 candidates in Malawi's elections Tuesday.

Malawians vote today in a hotly contested election that pits the high-profile incumbent president, Joyce Banda, famous for cutting her own salary, against a popular former preacher, the brother of Ms. Banda's predecessor, and the son of another former head of state.

Ms. Banda became only the second woman in Africa to lead a country when she took power in 2012 after the death in office of Bingu wa Mutharika, the dictatorial former ruler who lost the faith of the West after cracking down on free media and spending wastefully on projects like a mausoleum to his late wife Ethel. 

Banda, an abused wife who turned herself into a women's rights activist and businesswoman, quickly became a favorite African leader among the international donor community. Under her tenure, as much as 40 percent of Malawi’s official budget was provided by foreign governments.

After that brief period of restoration, international aid was cut again last summer after a major government corruption scandal called "Cashgate" broke. Banda is not believed to have profited, but a host of those around her are – and this spring she is running on having cleaned up the mess. Malawi’s backers will be watching the election closely to determine how much to contribute in the future. 

Voters today will choose between 12 presidential candidates and 12 parties, as well as for local office holders – the first time the three positions have been voted on together.

But the focus of the race is the battle between Banda and three other frontrunners: Lazarus Chakwera, a former evangelical preacher who now leads the Malawi Congress Party (MCP); Atupele Muluzi, the son of the former president Bakili Muluzi; and Peter Mutharika; the former foreign minister and the brother of Bingu wa Mutharika, who now heads his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

In the most recent poll, conducted by the Nyasa Times in April, Banda was ahead with 30 percent of the vote. She was closely trailed by Chakwera, who leads the party of Malawi’s former dictator Kamuzu Banda, with 27 percent, then Muluzi, with 22 percent, and Peter Mutharika, with 19 percent.

(A separate Afrobarometer poll had Mutharika in the lead with 27 per cent, Chakwera next with 21 per cent and Banda and her People's Party trailing with 19 per cent).

Banda took power in April 2012 under a constitutional mandate when Bingu wa Mutharika died. But she faced a stiff challenge from cabinet ministers who refused to confirm the death of the former president, and who gave instructions for his body to be flown to South Africa for “medical treatment” while they tried to gather support for Peter Mutharika to take over.

Eventually, the Army stepped in to back Banda. Once in power, she set about restoring relations with donors, pledging to sell the presidential jet and fleet of luxury cars, cutting her salary, and devaluing the local Kwacha currency, per International Monetary Fund recommendations.

Last year, in a move unpopular in much of Africa, she also commuted the sentences of two men jailed for displays of mutual affection, an offense under Malawi law.

Then a $33  million corruption scandal broke, revealing that ministers and civil servants had been siphoning off public money. While "Cashgate," as it was known, damaged Banda in the eyes of many Malawians and prompted donors to once again freeze aid, she has based her campaign on it, casting herself as the president who led the clean up.

She has been accused, however, of “buying” rural votes by handing out food parcels, some of them allegedly funded by government. And as polls opened this morning, allegations of rigging – including the exclusion of Mutharika’s name on some ballot papers – emerged in several areas, sparking fears of potential violence. However, diplomats have played down the claims, saying they have seen no credible evidence of foul play so far.

"The electoral commission has, overall and up to now, done a fair job. They have made, and they probably will make, mistakes – but that doesn't mean that there is rigging or manipulation," the British High Commissioner for Malawi. Michael Nevin, told Reuters. 

Results are expected late on Wednesday or early on Thursday.

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