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Banda in first electoral test in tight Malawi vote

Malawians voted Tuesday in closely fought national elections where incumbent President Joyce Banda faces the first democratic test of her rule in the small southern African country.

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.

Both the top two presidential candidates have a cloud hanging over them. Banda has been rocked by a government corruption scandal while her main foe, Peter Mutharika, faces treason charges.

In the commercial capital Blantyre, thousands of people queued in chilly morning temperatures at a major polling station where voting finally began four hours late.

Impatient residents sang and shouted their discontent. Around 50 angry youths staged an impromptu mini-protest carrying branches and chanting anti-government slogans.

"This is a disorganised government. Maybe they are trying to rig the election," said Paul Wind, 38.

"If they think they will frustrate us from voting, they are wrong. We will be here until we vote," he added.

Electoral commission chief Maxon Mbendera later apologised for the delay.

"We have this embarrassing situation but we are on top of it. It's an operational problem. I apologise to the nation," he told a news conference.

"There's no intention to prevent anyone from voting, there is no intention to disenfranchise any individual," Mbendera insisted.

Twelve candidates are standing in the race for the presidency but pollsters say the victor will be one of four frontrunners.

All four have vowed to create more jobs and boost the economy in the dirt-poor country.

Banda, a former vice president who took over two years ago on the death in office of her predecessor Bingu wa Mutharika, is confronted with a nationwide test of personal popularity.

Her bid to become an elected head of state has been overshadowed by the so-called "Cashgate" scandal involving the disappearance of $30 million (21.8 million euros) from the treasury last year.

The loss of this sum led to a partial aid freeze by donor nations which fund some 40 percent of the country's budget.

"I found this nation almost bankrupt," Banda, 64, said after voting in her hometown of Domasi.

"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."

Banda was ousted from Mutharika's party in 2011 and went on to form her own, the People's Party.

Her closest rival is Mutharika's sibling, 74-year-old Peter, an ex-law professor and former minister who had been considered heir-apparent to his brother.

However, Mutharika, who leads the Democratic Progressive Party, is on trial for treason along with 10 other former ministers and officials. They are accused of trying to prevent Banda from assuming power after the death of his brother.

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 fourth of the leading contenders is Atupele Muluzi, 36, son of the first democratic president Bakili Muluzi.

His father is facing graft charges after 12 million dollars vanished from the treasury during his tenure.

Voting was due to take place at 4,475 polling stations dotted around the country, which neighbours Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania.

Final results should be announced within eight days of voting.

A total of 18 parties have fielded candidates for 193 parliamentary seats and 462 local government posts.

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