Voters in Malawi have begun casting their ballots, with final opinion polls suggesting the presidential race is too close to call.

Seven candidates are vying for the top job but it is being viewed as a two-horse race between incumbent Bingu Wa Mutharika and his opponent, John Tembo.

The south-east African state is also due to elect a new parliament.

It is the first time voters can pass their verdict on a feud involving ex-President Bakili Muluzi.

The country of nearly six million voters has endured a protracted power struggle which saw riots, a failed impeachment bid, parliamentary deadlock and coup plot claims.

While it is one of the world’s poorest states, Malawi has a fast-growing economy and Western donors are wary of any threat to the relative peace and stability it has enjoyed over the past decade.

Court battle

Mr Tembo is backed by Mr Muluzi, who preceded Mr Mutharika as president.

Mr Muluzi lost a court battle on Saturday to stand for a third term, having argued in vain that after a break of five years he should be able to stand again.

After the legal defeat, his United Democratic Front endorsed Mr Tembo, leader of the Malawi Congress Party.

The power struggle between the incumbent president and his predecessor goes back to Mr Mutharika’s election in 2004, when he fell out with his one-time backer, accusing Mr Muluzi of trying to stonewall an anti-corruption campaign.

Mr Mutharika, 75, quit his rival’s party in 2005 to form his own Democratic Progressive Party and lead a minority government.

A former World Bank official who won praise from Western donors, he has said he only wants one more term and will then retire.

Mr Tembo, 77, who was once a leading figure in the regime of the late dictator Hastings Kamuzu Banda, is hoping the election will bring to an end 15 years in opposition.

Reports have surfaced that not enough ballot papers were distributed to opposition strongholds but the head of the Malawi electoral commission, Anastansia Msosa, said she had not received any complaint from any party leaders.

Former Ghanaian President John Kufuor, who is chairing a Commonwealth election observers mission to Malawi, accused Malawi state TV of bias towards the governing party in its campaign coverage this week.

Final results are expected by Thursday.

Source: BBC