Lilongwe — AFTER a run-up characterised by tragedy - including the escalating killings of people living with albinism and scores dead from a devastating cyclone Idai floods - Malawi is to hold general elections with the incumbent facing two members of his government and a familiar foe.
The watershed election is set for Tuesday, pitting President Peter Mutharika against his deputy, Saulos Klaus Chilima, Minister Atupele Muluzi and opposition contender, Lazarus Chakwera.
More than 6,8 million voters are registered, out of the country's population of more than 19 million people, to cast their ballots in the polls to be held 25 years after the restoration of democracy in the Southern African country.
The campaign period ended on Sunday morning.
A day earlier, Mutharika (78), in power since 2014, addressed his final Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) campaign rally in Blantyre, the country's centre of finance and commerce, and its second largest city.
He reiterated a pledge to revive the economy, build more schools and establish factories.
"We have set Malawi on the path of progress. Given a chance for another five years, I will develop this country beyond recognition," the incumbent said.
He said his government would continue building the economy and eradicate poverty, which is among the worst in the world.
Malawi is classified as a least developed country. Nearly 70 percent of its population live on less than $1,90 a day.
During Mutharika's reign, Malawi's economic growth has eased from more than 5 percent to 4 percent but his administration is credited with lowering the rate of inflation to 9 percent, down from 23 percent.
However, the former law professor faces a formidable task retaining power following reports of ill-health.
He is reportedly battling an undisclosed illness. Mutharikha has denied the reports.
Critics also accuse him of reneging on his pledge to combat corruption after it emerged he allegedly received $200 000 from an entrepreneur under probe for a improper tender to supply catering to police.
The issue is among matters fuelling divisions in the ruling party and as a consequence, Mutharikha will face his deputy, Chilima (48) in the election.
Mutharikha and Chilima were running mates in the last poll but have spectacularly fallen out after the latter accused the DPP of corruption.
An anti-corruption proponent, he quit DPP last year to form the United Transformation Movement (UTM) to contest the elections.
Mutharika fired him from cabinet but he stayed on as the deputy president as constitutionally, he cannot be removed from the position by the president.
Speaking in the northern town of Mzuzu this past weekend, Chilima restated his promises to create 1 million jobs.
Chilima's campaign has also been premised on fighting graft that is blamed for worsening poverty in the country.
According to Amnesty International, since the return of multi-party democracy to Malawi in 1994, governments have undertaken important steps to contain corruption, and every government that has come to power since then has made the fight against corruption a central part of its agenda.
"The progress in the fight against corruption, however, seems to have stagnated: petty and grand corruption are commonplace and the high levels of patronage, nepotism and clientelism constitute a hurdle to the proper functioning of the anti-corruption framework," the organisation stated.
Revelations of government corruption in 2013 have disrupted foreign aid, which constitutes 40 percent of the government's budget.
Another contender synonymous with the ruling party is Muluzi, aged 41. The United Democratic Front presidential candidate He is the only opposition member to serve in Mutharika's cabinet.
He has served in a number of portfolios and was health minister in the cabinet Mutharika dissolved last week ahead of elections.
A lawyer by training, he is the son of former president, Bakili Muluzi, who led the country from 1994 to 2004.
Chakwera (64) is making another bid for the presidency, five years after losing to Mutharika. He polled 27,8 percent to the eventual winner's 36,4 percent.
It was the fifth straight loss by his Malawi Congress Party (MCP) since the historic 1994 poll.
His campaign received a major boost after his endorsement by former president Joyce Banda, who withdrew from the race in March.
Violence has marred preparations for what is to be most tightly-contested elections since then.
Last week, the European Union Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) temporarily withdrew two of its long-term election observers after they were attacked by unknown hooligans in the southern Chikwawa district.
Some 28 election observers have been deployed around the country to oversee the period leading to, during and after polls.
Prior to the attack on observers, supporters of rival parties clashed intermittently.
These violations are putting paid to Malawi's standing as a model in conducting free, fair and peaceful elections.
Gruesomely, the impoverished nation has been experiencing an escalation of attacks against people living with albinism, coinciding with preparations for the elections.
Politicians eager for office have partly been blamed for the violations, which are steeped in the false belief that body parts of albinos bring good luck.
At least 22 people with the condition have been killed since 2014. The murders are among some 163 violations during the period.
Hence, human rights groups are demanding that the next government must rebuilding the criminal justice system and ensure justice for the vulnerable individuals.
"People with albinism deserve justice for the hateful crimes against them. The impunity must stop," said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International's Southern Africa director.
Malawi is also reeling from the devastating Cyclone Idai, one of the most severe weather disasters to strike the Southern Hemisphere.
Preparations for the elections have not been exempt from the cyclone that left more than 800 people dead in Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe after making landfall in March. In Malawi, the resultant floods killed 60 people and displaced about 90 000 households in some 15 districts.
Potential voters lost their identity documents and relevant paperwork when they fled their homes. Public office hopefuls have faced problems reaching the electorate after infrastructure such as roads were destroyed.
Others, such as ruling party aspirant for Nsaje, Gladys Ganda, said the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) had denied them access to makeshift camps where they wished to hold campaign rallies.
"It has been difficult to promote our platforms," she said.
MEC however defended the stance arguing the camps were already congested.
It nonetheless said it would not prevent people affected by the cyclone from voting.
"You (registered voter) can still vote if you lost, damaged or misplaced your voter registration certificate," the organisation stated.