Lilongwe - Malawians vote on Tuesday in an election in which 11 candidates are vying to unseat President Joyce Banda, southern Africa's first female head of state, who came to power two years ago.
The only two opinion polls published have had very different results, but most analysts rank Banda as favourite because of her popularity in rural areas where the government has been rolling out development projects and farm subsidy schemes.
Farmers expect an 8 percent rise in the maize harvest this year, giving the aid-dependent state a surplus of a million tons, while a devaluation of the kwacha currency has ended fuel shortages - although it also sent inflation soaring and dented Banda's popularity.
“Votes mostly come from rural areas, where over 60 percent of the population lives. There, she has been pursuing pro-poor initiatives which have had great impact on rural people,” said Rafiq Hajat, head of the Institute for Policy Interaction, a think-tank.
In her first months in office, Banda enjoyed huge goodwill among the landlocked nation's 13 million people who grew to hate her predecessor Bingu wa Mutharika's autocratic style.
But Banda, who grew up in a village in southern Malawi, saw her popularity wane after she imposed austerity measures including the kwacha devaluation to stabilise the economy.
More recently, Banda's reputation for probity has been hit by a $15 million corruption scandal, dubbed 'Cashgate' after the discovery of large amounts of money in the car of a senior government official, that has soured relations with donors.
More than 80 people have been arrested and a former cabinet minister has been dismissed and put on trial for money laundering and attempted murder. Urban voters in particular have criticised Banda's response as ponderous and ineffectual.
Banda's main challenge is from Lazarus Chakwera, a conservative evangelical pastor who retired from the church last year to take the helm of the Malawi Congress Party, the former British colony's first ruling party.
Mutharika's younger brother Peter is also running as the head of the Democratic Progressive Party, as is Atupele Muluzi, a son of former president Bakili Muluzi.
Allegations of vote-rigging plots have been rife although Banda has rejected them. Malawi-based diplomats say the problem does not appear to be as big as Banda's challengers make out.
“We have seen no credible evidence of rigging,” British High Commissioner Michael Nevin told Reuters. “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.”
Church groups fear outbreaks of violence in the normally peaceful country if Banda wins, while opposition parties may continue to pursue claims of vote fraud. - Reuters