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Published: Friday May 23, 2014 MYT 11:25:01 PM
Updated: Friday May 23, 2014 MYT 11:26:30 PM

Anxiety grips Malawi as vote count delays drag on

BLANTYRE Malawi (Reuters) - Anxiety mounted in Malawi on Friday as the wait for results from a presidential election dragged on, with only 12 percent of votes counted in the three days since they were cast.

Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) chairman Maxon Mbendera said the delays were caused because results were having to be transmitted by fax instead of email. He refused to be pinned down on when the outcome would be announced.

The delay risks fanning tensions in the country of 13 million people where President Joyce Banda, southern Africa's first female head of state, has seen her popularity eroded by a corruption scandal. One analyst warned of the potential for violence.

Mbendera said the law required the result to be announced within eight days of the May 20 election. He said he would start releasing official results when about a third of the vote had been tallied.

"Spare me from making me pretend to be a prophet of some sort, but it will be done. We will issue the results, when we issue the results," he told reporters.

An unofficial count, announced by a radio station accredited with the MEC, showed Banda in third position behind Peter Mutharika of the Democratic People’s Party and Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party.

The opposition United Democratic Front’s Atupele Muluzi, in unofficial fourth position, demanded that Mbendera step down for mismanaging the election.

Analyst Robert Besseling at research group IHS said the risk of violent clashes between supporters of Banda and Mutharika, the brother of former president Bingu wa Mutharika who died in office in 2012, was rising.

"Highest risk of such violence will be driven by further delays in the MEC's release of the vote and further claims of electoral irregularities by party leaders," Besseling said.

PARTY COMPLAINTS

Banda's People Party has already complained about the handling of the vote and asked the High Court to block the MEC from announcing unofficial results over the radio, but a High Court judge dismissed the application on Thursday.

Mbendera said the commission had received 135 complaints of irregularities, which it was looking into before announcing the official results.

"We're committed to a process that's accurate and transparent. As far as we know, polling was free and fair in 99 percent of the centres and both local and international observers have commended the process," he said.

The MEC abandoned its digital results platform on Wednesday as reports of hackers breaking into its computers surfaced.

The poll has been plagued by problems from the outset, with voting materials turning up hours late and ballot papers being sent to the wrong end of the country, infuriating voters.

Organisers had to extend voting in some urban areas into a second day and initial counting was held up by a lack of lighting and generators at polling stations.

The delays have shuttered business in the two cities of Blantyre and Lilongwe, and prices of tobacco, the country's main export commodity, have fallen 15 percent to $1.53 per kg, on concerns over the election outcome, according to the Tobacco Control Commission.

"I have not taken my children to school now for three days, as I'm worried for their safety," said Tutu Chiphwanya, a receptionist in Blantyre.

Yet in Lilongwe, the stronghold of the MCP, many were euphoric in expectation of a win for their candidate, Chakwera.

Banda enjoyed huge goodwill when she came to power two years ago, but her popularity waned after she was forced to impose austerity measures, including a sharp devaluation, to stabilise the economy.

Her administration was hit by a $15 million corruption scandal, dubbed 'Cashgate', after large amounts of cash were discovered in the car of a senior government official.

(Editing by Helen Nyambura-Mwaura; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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