Blantyre, Malawi – With just a few weeks left before the presidential elections scheduled for May 20, Malawi is in a political frenzy. Twelve presidential candidates are frantically roving this southern African country to convince its 7.5 million registered voters to pick them.
But just four candidates seem to have a shot at winning: Lazarus Chakwera of the opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP), Atupele Muluzi of United Democratic Front (UDF), Peter Mutharika of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and President Joyce Banda of the People’s Party (PP), who has led Malawi since the death of former president Bingu Wa Mutharika in 2012.
It’s hard to predict who will win, especially given the lack of opinion polls. However, one recent survey found Banda garnering 30 percent of the vote, followed by Chakwera at 29 percent, Muluzi at 22 percent and Mutharika trailing with 19 percent.
To have four major strong parties vying for the elections at the same time has created that competitiveness because in the past, it was basically a two-horse race.
Rafik Hajat, the executive director of the Institute for Policy Interaction, a think-tank, told Al Jazeera the unpredictability of this year’s elections is caused by the fact that so many parties have a fighting chance.
“To have four major strong parties vying for the elections at the same time has created that competitiveness because in the past, it was basically a two-horse race: between the MCP and the UDF or between the Coalition and DPP, with a third one providing a balance,” he said.
Furthermore, all four major parties are fielding new presidential candidates (Banda’s People’s Party did not exist when the last presidential elections were held in 2009.)
“In previous elections, it was easier to suggest the winner because MCP was featuring John Tembo, UDF was for Bakili Muluzi and DPP was the late for Bingu Wa Mutharika – while Joyce Banda was non-existent,” said Clement Chinoko, a Malawian journalist.
Hand-outs to woo voters
All four of the leading contenders’ parties have experience ruling Malawi. Ideologically, there aren’t many differences between the parties, said Ernest Thindwa, a political science lecturer at the University of Malawi. All four have pledged to reduce poverty in a country where most Malawians live below the international poverty line of $1.25 a day.
Despite similarities in their platforms, each of the four major parties holds certain advantages over the others, said Thindwa.
“We have the ruling People’s Party; they have an advantage of the incumbency. By virtue of being in government they have access to public resources. For example, [state-owned] media is giving more coverage to the ruling party compared to other political parties, so this could be a deciding factor,” he said.
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Thindwa noted that Malawian politicians often give hand-outs to woo voters. For instance, Banda recently launched an initiative in which she gave maize and cows and built houses for poor people in remote areas.
Although civil society organisations have criticised Banda for this, saying it is tantamount to vote buying, Banda refused to stop.
The MCP could have a chance of winning given that, in past elections, many Malawians have voted based on their ethnicity.
“Looking at their ethnic support base, MCP is very popular in the central region, which is the most populous region… So if the central region chooses to go for MCP, then it should easily win the election,” said Thindwa.
For its part, the DPP could perform well at the polls because of voters’ warm memories of its leadership under the late Mutharika.
During his presidency, Malawi’s economy grew at breakneck speed. It registered about nine percent annual growth, and in 2008 came second only to Qatar as the world’s fastest-growing economy. Malawi also enjoyed a surplus of maize after Mutharika introduced a farm subsidy programme in 2005.
“The DPP have that history of being star performers, and people are still aware of the good DPP can do to the economy. But in the absence of the former President Mutharika, it is not certain whether DPP will still have that capacity,” said Thindwa.
Finally, the UDF’s Muluzi is popular in Malawi’s eastern Yao region. At age 35, he is the youngest presidential candidate and may perform well among Malawi’s large number of young voters.
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Banda: Still the favourite?
Despite the highly competitive race, many Malawians told Al Jazeera they believed Banda would win, despite scandals including Cashgate, in which $32m in government money was stolen.
“Among the urban intelligentsia and the people who can read newspapers and who can listen to the radio, I think the scandal had seriously affected her chance,” said Hajat.
“But votes mostly come from rural areas, where over 60 percent of the population lives. There, she has been pursuing her pro-poor initiatives, which have great impact on rural people as she is portraying a caring mother’s image.”
In its brief on the country’s elections, the UK-based think-tank Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) predicted Banda would win amid a split vote between the opposition parties. “Helped by a crackdown on graft, a split opposition, and the benefits of incumbency, we expect Mrs Banda and her People’s Party to secure another mandate,” stated the EIU brief.
Nevertheless, the EIU predicted the May 20 elections will be “tightly fought”.