President Bingu wa Mutharika of Malawi appears set to win re-election in polls marred by what monitoring groups have described as the "unashamed bias" of state radio and television during the election campaign.
With a third of the votes counted by early Thursday, Mutharika – of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) – was reported to have pulled more than half the votes so far, and the experienced African election observer Denis Kadima told AllAfrica in an interview that he did not expect the trend to change.
Kadima said he expected the pace at which election results were being released to speed up and that counting would probably be completed by Friday. Delegations for the presidential inauguration were already arriving, he added.
“I expect that things will continue to go smoothly, and unless the losers come with strong and palpable evidence, it will be very difficult for them to delay this process… The process was managed in a transparent and professional manner, based on what they could afford… with the time given and the skill and resources they had.”
Interim reports issued by domestic and international election observers agreed that the election process on polling day went smoothly, but were unanimously critical of the run-up to the election. State-controlled radio and television came in for particularly strong criticism.
The Malawi Election Support Network, a local coalition of 75 civil society organisations, said in its preliminary report that voting on election day "generally took place without serious problems," but that "a significant number of voters’ names did not appear on the voter registers..." resulting in an undetermined number of voters being disenfranchised.
But, the network added, the political environment ahead of the election did not meet the minimum standards laid down by the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
"In particular, concern remained about the heightened level of political tension between the ruling party and opposition and the lack of confidence in certain quarters of the voting public as well as the opposition concerning the impartiality and effectiveness of the Electoral Commission."
The voter registration process was also marred by irregularities, said the network. However, it noted a "significant improvement" in the number of woman candidates.
But it suggested that the ruling party had more access to campaign finance and state media than the opposition. The governing DPP had “significantly more campaign material than other political parties. The mission received several reports of allegations of the use of state resources for campaign purposes by the incumbent party. The... mission was not in a position to verify these allegations although it views them most seriously."
"Malawi Television and the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation failed to provide equitable access to all parties," it added. "Their coverage excessively favoured the DPP.”
Former Ghanaian president John Kufuor, heading a team of Commonwealth election observers, said election day had been peaceful and the voting process well managed, but key benchmarks for democratic elections had not been met.
The Commonwealth's interim report said that "the overwhelming impact of the exploitation of the incumbency advantage, especially the unashamed bias of the state TV and radio, created a markedly unlevel playing field, tarnishing the otherwise democratic character of the campaign."
The report continued: "We are extremely concerned at the conduct of state-owned media in its coverage of these elections. The Election Law provides that every political party shall have the right to have its 'campaign propaganda’ broadcast on radio by the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation. In addition, major media had all signed a code of conduct highlighting the need for balanced and fair reporting.
"In the weeks leading up to the day of the election the President and his party were afforded over 97 percent of airtime. At the same time, the same media refused to provide virtually any access to other candidates and parties or to abide by agreements to air party political broadcasts.
"Conversely, it was reported that Joy FM, a private radio station which offered extensive coverage to the opposition, was closed down on the eve of the election by police for allegedly breaking the campaign silence.
"We were pleased that more balanced coverage of the election was provided by some private radio stations, such as Zodiac and Capital, which is an encouraging development. While some opposition parties did have access to coverage in newspapers and private radio stations, this in no way compensates for the blanket coverage afforded to the President and the governing party by the state-owned media."