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Early voting peaceful in Malawi

Malawi voters were choosing on Tuesday between an incumbent president credited with economic gains but engaged in a bitter feud with his predecessor, and a challenger linked to the old dictatorship.

world Updated: May 19, 2009 16:42 IST

Malawi voters were choosing on Tuesday between an incumbent president credited with economic gains but engaged in a bitter feud with his predecessor, and a challenger linked to the old dictatorship. The race is too close to call between President Bingu wa Mutharika and challenger John Tembo.

Annie Msapha, a 27-year-old secretary, was hoping to get past the political feud that has distracted leaders from dealing with pressing problems in this nation of 12 million, one of the world's poorest countries.

Msapha said she voted for Tembo because "the past five years has been full of squabbles. This period shows that Bingu has no leadership skills."

Mutharika's feud with his predecessor and one-time mentor Bakili Muluzi has led to rioting, a failed impeachment bid, paralysis in parliament and accusations of coup and assassination plots. Muluzi, barred by term limits from running, is backing Tembo. A few hours after polls opened, police surrounded a Blantyre radio station owned by Muluzi and arrested two presenters and a technician. Police said a satirical show aired at 2 a.m. had violated electoral rules by lampooning Mutharika. Recent university graduate Aubrey Phiri said he voted against Tembo because of his historic ties to Malawi's dictatorship. Tembo, 77, was a leading figure in the regime of Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who ruled from the end of British rule in 1964 until Muluzi became Malawi's first democratically elected leader in 1994. Banda died in 1997.

"I don't want John Tembo to steal government," Phiri said. Early voting was peaceful, with long lines at polls in the commercial capital, Blantyre. Polls opened to the nearly 6 million registered voters at 6 a.m. and were to close at 6 p.m., with results expected Thursday.

Malawi has enjoyed relative peace and stability over the past decade and is seen as one of Africa's more promising democracies. The country may be better known as the place where pop star Madonna has fought adoption battles and launched a development project for 1 million orphans, half of whom have lost one or more parents to AIDS. Madonna has adopted a son from Malawi, and is trying to adopt a girl.

The economy under Mutharika, a former World Bank official, has been growing at unprecedented rates for the past few years as the government tries to attract foreign investment and break its dependence on foreign aid.

Mutharika, 75, has won praise from Western donors for his sound economic policies and has helped revitalize farms. A few years ago Malawi was unable to feed its people after a series of droughts and crop failures. Now it is exporting food thanks to improvements in subsidies to local farmers.

Mutharika was first elected in 2004 as the candidate of Muluzi's United Democratic Front. As president, Mutharika angered the United Democratic Front by arresting senior party officials on fraud and corruption charges. He later accused some of them of conspiring with Muluzi to assassinate him _ claims the officials and former president denied. Mutharika abruptly quit Muluzi's party in 2005 and formed the Democratic Progressive Party.

Muluzi, long dogged by corruption allegations, is being tried on charges of siphoning away about $10 million from donor countries while president. He says the charges are politically motivated. Muluzi had vowed to remove Mutharika from power "for being ungrateful." But his bid to run in Tuesday's election was stopped by the Malawi Electoral Commission because he has already served the maximum two terms the constitution allows, from 1994 to 2004. After the court setback, Muluzi's party endorsed Tembo, of the Malawi Congress Party.

In all, seven candidates are running for president. Voters also were electing members of the 193-seat parliament.