Malawian president takes early lead in vote count
LILONGWE (Reuters) - Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika took a strong lead on Wednesday in an election seen as a test of political stability in one of the world's fastest growing economies.
He based his campaign for a second term on his record of turning Malawi into a net food exporter and delivering three years of growth above 7 percent in the country of 13 million where annual gross domestic product is only $313 (202 pounds) per capita.
But he faced an opposition challenge united behind long-time opposition leader John Tembo, who had the support of former President Bakili Muluzi, himself excluded from the contest.
Malawi has the world's second-fastest growing economy, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. But a repeat of paralysing political upheaval could hurt efforts to attract more foreign investors.
A protracted power struggle between wa Mutharika and Muluzi prompted a failed impeachment bid and allegations of a coup plot, unnerving Western donors vital for development programmes.
Wa Mutharika hopes the election will give him a parliamentary majority for the first time, ending a long standoff with the opposition that virtually paralysed government.
The first results of Tuesday's presidential election from the central region, traditionally an opposition stronghold, showed wa Mutharika, who is seeking his first parliamentary majority, had 845,000 votes with 254,000 for Tembo, according to a private radio station accredited to release results.
Official election results had been scheduled for midday (11 a.m. British time), but counting has been slow.
Electoral commission chair Anastazia Msosa told reporters that official results from 10 constituencies of 193, wa Mutharika won 4,502, against Muluzi's 2,296. She said some mathematical errors had been made.
One of the presidential candidates, Stanley Masauli of the Republican Party, predicted victory for wa Mutharika.
"It is evident that president wa Mutharika will emerge a clear winner and my party and I would like to concede defeat," Masauli said in a letter to the electoral commission.
A parliamentary vote was also held on Tuesday.
"People have voted for wa Mutharika because of his economic performance and the improved food situation," said Rafiq Hajat, executive director of the Institute for Policy Interaction, a local political think tank.
"The other reason is because people are reluctant to vote for someone with a murky past that has not been resolved."
Tembo was a former leading figure in the government of late strongman Hastings Kamuzu Banda.
Government statistics show the proportion of Malawians living on less than a dollar a day fell to 45 percent from 65 percent in the last three years due to higher local food output.
Food security is the top issue for Malawi's 13 million people and many voters credit the government's fertiliser subsidy programme with boosting food output, to the extent that Malawi now exports the staple maize to its neighbours.
Observer missions from the European Union and the Commonwealth of mostly former British colonies described the voting as calm and without incident.
Malawian police on Tuesday shut down Muluzi's Joy Radio station and arrested three journalists who work there for violating electoral regulations, a police spokesman said.
(Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Giles Elgood)
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