Millions of voters in Malawi cast ballots Tuesday in a closely-fought election, with President Peter Mutharika battling to hold off two rivals in a race that focused on corruption allegations and economic development.
Polls closed at 6:00 pm (1600 GMT) after a day of long queues at many voting stations, with early results expected on Wednesday evening or Thursday.
Mutharika, who has been in power since 2014, faces opposition from his own deputy Saulos Chilima and former Baptist preacher Lazarus Chakwera.
“I am happy that I have voted,” said Mutharika, 78, leader of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) after leaving a polling station in Thyolo town outside Blantyre.
“There are very long lines but I am encouraging everyone to vote because it is the people who will decide.”
His campaign for a second five-year term has highlighted his record of improving roads and power infrastructure.
Under Mutharika, inflation in the southeast African country has fallen from 23% to below 9%, but still just 11% of the population has access to mains electricity.
The election is the first since a new law forced parties to declare large donations and banned the once-common practice by candidates of giving cash handouts.
“We need jobs to change our lives and that is what I hope my candidate does,” Madalitso Willie, 25, a motor mechanic in Lilongwe, told AFP, declining to reveal his preference.
“We have been disappointed so many times before but now we want something different,” said Violet Moyo, a 30-year-old businesswoman.
The National Initiative for Civic Education, a democracy advocacy group, reported long queues at 75% of polling stations, though election day appeared to gone smoothly.
Food shortages, graft scandals and ballooning external debt have hurt Mutharika’s popularity while in office.
He must defeat a strong challenge from Chakwera, leader of the main opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP), who came a narrow second in the 2014 election.
“We mounted a very formidable campaign unlike any other party and unlike any other year,” Chakwera said after voting in Lilongwe as crowds scrambled to see him.
“We are positive about the result.”
Mutharika’s other opponent, Chilima, quit the ruling party last year to form the youth-focused United Transformation Movement, while staying on as vice president.
Under Malawi law, the president cannot fire the vice president.
Chilima, 46, emphasised his youth credentials by doing push-ups on stage during the campaign, while his wife released a popular rap video extolling his qualities to be president.
More than half of the 6.8-million registered voters are under 35.
“Today we start a new beginning, a new life for Malawi,” Chilima told AFP.
“Chilima seems to have the strongest support among youth and in urban centres,” Amanda Lea Robinson, a Malawi specialist at Ohio State University, told AFP. “This could be attributed to his populist campaign, as well as his relative youth.”