analysisBy Frank Jomo
On May 20th this year, the southern African nation of Malawi will go to the polls to elect a president, members of parliament and local government representatives. The forthcoming elections will be the tightest since the introduction of multiparty democracy in 1994 as 12 presidential candidates line up to battle over about seven million votes.
The incumbent President Joyce Banda is pitted against three strong challengers. Most high profile is Peter Mutharika, brother of the late President Bingu wa Mutharika and former Minister of Foreign Affairs, from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) - the party Banda herself represented during the 2009 election as a running mate to Bingu. She was booted out of the party two years down the line and formed her People's Party after it was apparent Bingu wanted his brother to succeed him.
Bingu died on April 5th, 2012 while in office and was replaced by Banda in line with the country's constitution, which stipulates that a vice president assumes office when a president fails to finish his or her term by way of incapacitation or death.
Banda's second stiff challenger is Atupele Muluzi, son of former president Bakili Muluzi from the United Democratic Front. While some have argued that the 35-year old is not sufficiently experienced to run government, he has the political appeal to attract votes, especially among the country's abundant youth.
Muluzi launched his 'Agenda for Change' campaign three years ago during a political conference held in the commercial capital, Blantyre. The Agenda seems to be resonating well with younger people as evidenced from the mammoth crowds that turn up to his rallies. Two of the country's large political parties - Mutharika's DPP and Banda's PP have responded by choosing younger people as running mates.
Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), a party which ruled the country with an iron fist for 30 years, is another formidable opponent. Chakwera however is steering a new team that is not associated with atrocities MCP inflicted on Malawians.
These three are going to give Banda a run for her money in the forthcoming elections.
While she has the advantage of incumbency, Banda is struggling to allay a huge corruption scandal that saw Malawi lose about 13 billion kwacha ($32.5 million) in just six months from April through September 2013, according to an audit report from UK-based firm Baker Tilly Limited.
The scandal, dubbed 'Cashgate' by the local (and international) press has dented the image of Joyce Banda and her administration. Donors closed aid taps almost sending the government to its knees, unable to procure essential social commodities like medicine. Up to $150 million in aid has been withheld by donors who are demanding Banda to do more to reign in the massive fraud that, according to government records, claims about a third of the country's annual national budget.
Donors feel Banda needs to do more to arrest institutionalised corruption in government while civil society organizations are angry that the current administration has allowed such huge sums of money to be siphoned off under its watch.
Executive Director of 'Malawi Watch', Billy Banda, told this reporter in Blantyre: "Huge sums of money have been swindled under the watch of President Banda. There is no way you can divorce her from rampant corruption in government. What Malawi needs is an independent commission of inquiry so that the nation knows the truth of what happened".
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) says it will await results of the May elections over whether to start disbursing funds to the southern African nation - effectively a vote of no confidence in the current administration.
IMF Chief of Mission for Malawi, Tsidi Tsikata, told reporters in April that the IMF mission will return to Malawi in June, a month after the elections, to discuss recommendations under the Extended Credit Facility Programme, which the country signed in 2012 after Banda assumed office.
President Banda concedes there is rampant corruption in government and has vowed to arrest this vice. Over 70 people, including top government officials, have since been arrested and are currently in court answering fraud charges but despite these arrests, Banda has continued to struggle to ease donor and public anger over corruption.
While elsewhere a corruption scandal of this magnitude would have been enough to cost the President her job, in Malawi this may not be the case. President Banda remains likely to achieve victory in the polls due to a fragmented opposition. If the opposition in Malawi was a united force, the 2014 elections would be theirs to lose.
About seven million Malawians registered to vote on May 20th. Three of the strongest challengers in the elections, Banda herself, Mutharika and Muluzi come from the southern region of the country which has the largest number of votes. In a country where voting is often along regional lines, prospects are that votes in this region will be split among these three contestants.
If Mutharika and Muluzi were to join hands and approach the elections as one front, the game would almost certainly be up for Banda. But Muluzi and Mutharika have failed to strike an electoral alliance - each wants to be president of this impoverished nation where about a third of the people live below a dollar a day.
The central region is regarded as the stronghold of Malawi Congress Party. However, for Lazarus Chakwera (who comes from the region) to rule the country, he needs votes from both the south and north of the country. His failure to unite with either the UDF of Muluzi or DPP of Mutharika means he will struggle to get sufficient votes from the south.
The northern voters remain unpredictable. Whoever makes inroads in this region is likely to win - this currently favours the President whose husband comes from the region.
Malawi follows a simple majority electoral policy. Whoever amasses more votes than the rest wins. In 2004 Mutharika won the elections with less than 30 percent of the total votes. The 2014 election may just be a repeat of what happened in 2004, thanks to greed and hunger for power that characterises Malawi's politics.
Frank Jomo is Malawian journalist. This article was commissioned via the African Journalism Fund.