Malawi president leads poll by wide margin

By Mabvuto Banda

LILONGWE (Reuters) - Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika led by a wide margin on Thursday in vote counting from an election viewed as a test for political stability in the poor but rapidly growing country.

Wa Mutharika based his campaign for a second term on his record of turning Malawi into a net food exporter and delivering three years of growth above 7 percent in the country of 13 million where annual gross domestic product is only $313 (198 pounds) per capita.

Electoral Commission head Anastasia Msosa said votes had been counted and verified from 153 out of 193 constituencies -- nearly 80 percent.

"The counting shows that the incumbent is leading by a wide margin ... but official results should be ready by this afternoon if all goes as planned," Msosa told Reuters.

Wa Mutharika faced an opposition challenge united behind long-time opposition leader John Tembo, who had the support of former President Bakili Muluzi, himself excluded from the contest.

Malawi has the world's second-fastest growing economy, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. But a repeat of paralysing political upheaval could hurt efforts to attract more foreign investors.

Parliamentary elections were also held on Tuesday.

The opposition on Wednesday rejected results showing the president had a big lead in their Central Province stronghold. The electoral commission said complaints would only be dealt with after all votes had been received.

Wa Mutharika hopes the election will give him a parliamentary majority for the first time, ending a long standoff with the opposition that almost paralysed government. (Writing by Marius Bosch; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)

Article Published: 21/05/2009