Blantyre, Malawi - Malawi deployed the army Tuesday to contain violence that saw polling stations burnt and marred polls seen as the first true test of President Joyce Banda's scandal-tainted rule.
As polling stations opened as much as 10 hours late, anger and speculation about the fairness of the vote spilled over into violence Ämirroring the country's volatile politics.
On the outskirts of the commercial capital Blantyre, an AFP reporter saw the smouldering remains of a polling station that had been torched by voters protesting late delivery of balloting material.
A tent used as a polling station was burnt in another Blantyre township, according the electoral commission chief Maxon Mbendera.
In the city centre angry youths staged an impromptu mini-protest carrying branches and chanting anti-government slogans.
“Maybe they are trying to rig the election,” said Paul Wind, 38. “If they think they will frustrate us from voting, they are wrong,” he added.
Another voter Fanuel Kapenga says “this causes doubt, especially if the ruling party wins.”
The stakes are high in this, the first election since hard-line president Bingu wa Mutharika died in office two years ago, with his rival heirs reprising their battle for power.
In the days after his death, Mutharika's body was secretly flown around Africa as his brother Peter allegedly tried to prevent Joyce Banda Äthen vice-president Ä from being sworn in.
Banda began her term as a darling of the West, feted as one of Africa's rare women leaders, but her government has since been ensnared in a $30 million corruption scandal that has seen foreign donors freeze vital aid.
For 74-year-old Peter Mutharika winning would mean an end to his trial for treason.
Analysts predict Banda will win albeit with a slender majority.
“I think the president still has a fighting chance of winning,” said Boniface Gulani a political scientist at the University of Malawi.
But with the victor expected to take 40 percent or less of the votes cast in a do-or-die political battle, the potential for further violence is high.
“Tensions are running very high, especially in Blantyre, and if Joyce Banda wins the vote then I expect there will be more trouble than we've already seen today,” said Clive Gabay of the Queen Mary University of London.
To try to calm tensions, election officials on Tuesday extended voting by three hours and deployed the army.
“Defence Force personnel will deploy to strengthen the presence and security already being provided by the Malawi Police Service,” said Mbendera.
“We have this embarrassing situation but we are on top of it. It's an operational problem. I apologise to the nation,” he said, adding there was no intention to disenfranchise any individual.
Throughout her election campaign Banda has made a virtue of the fact she uncovered the “Cashgate” scandal, which saw money siphoned off from the treasury in to the hands of top officials, and critics say to Banda's party war-chest.
“I found this nation almost bankrupt,” Banda, 64, said after voting in her home village of Domasi, near the former capital Zomba.
“I'm getting to the end of those two years, and Malawi is at a better place. We have grown by six percent economic growth, we have fuel, we have enough food.
“Malawi is at a better place, but the decision to give me the mandate to continue belongs to Malawians.”
Some 7.5 million people are eligible to choose a president, lawmakers and local government councillors in the fifth democratic polls since the end of decades of one-party rule in 1994.
Twelve candidates are standing in the race for the presidency but pollsters say the victor will be one of three or four frontrunners.
Another of Banda's closest competitors is political novice and former cleric Lazarus Chakwera, 59. His Malawi Congress Party led the country after independence from Britain for three decades under dictator Kamuzu Banda.
He says the party has now been “rebranded” from its dark past.
The election is closely watched and whoever emerges winner has their work clearly cut out already. It will likely take time before the international aid taps are re-opened as donors will need to be convinced there will not be any more leaks.
Final results should be announced within eight days of voting.