At the tombstone of Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, gardener H.P.M. Phirri chuckled over the title Banda bestowed upon himself early in his long, violent, occasionally bizarre tyranny.

"Life president," Phirri said. "He's dead now. He's under the ground."

That he is. But as the voters of Malawi headed for the polls today, they could see just how long a shadow a Big Man can cast from the grave.

Five years after Africa's best-dressed despot was swept away in the continent's rush to multiparty democracy, Banda's legacy remains preeminent. Today's election was twice postponed by the kind of chicanery Banda made the norm for 30 years. The field of candidates for his old office is dominated by his former aides. And state radio covers almost no one but the incumbent president, Bakili Muluzi, a onetime reformer. He lately has taken to calling himself "Dr.," a title as closely associated with Banda as the three-piece Savile Row suit and matching homburg he regularly sported.

As transitions to democracy go, Malawi's has not been storybook.

"I call it transition without transformation," said Wiseman Chirwa, a history professor at the University of Malawi. "We've crossed the bridge, but we're still on the same bus, with the same drivers."

Other resurgent African democracies find themselves on the same road. Generally free elections from teeming Nigeria to tiny Sao Tome have heralded a return to the democratic structure on which Africa's newly independent nations were founded in the late 1950s and early '60s.

Most of those nascent democracies scarcely had taken root before being overtaken by dictatorships, military coups and one-party rule, and Africa's many strongmen reigned with impunity as long as they could dandle the competing superpowers of the Cold War. By the early 1990s, when the West joined Africans in pushing for multiparty elections, the tradition of autocratic Big Man rule had established itself.

"I think if we're going to assess the several fragile new democracies in Africa now, a good starting point is what they came from," said Michael Bratton, a political science professor at Michigan State University and co-author of "Democratic Experiments in Africa."

"These countries had democracy for only a brief period of time following independence. There isn't much of a tradition," Bratton said. "The tendency therefore is to fall back on tried and true methods of using power. . . . It's going to be a kind of Big Man style of democracy."

Take Malawi, a markedly poor, strikingly beautiful nation of 10 million tucked into the southern reaches of the Great Rift Valley. First defined by explorer David Livingstone, who established Scottish Presbyterian mission schools on the western shores of Lake Malawi, the country gained independence from Britain in July 1964, with Banda as prime minister. A month later Banda, an American-trained physician, declared "one party, one leader, one government and no nonsense about it."

Banda's edicts could be eccentric. He outlawed long hair, miniskirts and Simon and Garfunkel's "Cecilia," which drew unwanted attention to "official hostess" Cecilia Kadzamira. But his grip on power was ruthless -- and well-documented by witnesses and human rights groups. Suspected opponents were imprisoned by the tens of thousands and, from time to time, fed to crocodiles. The bullet-riddled bodies of ministers accused of disloyalty were found in mysterious "car accidents."

At the village level, Banda's thuggish Malawi Young Pioneers collected tribute from some of the poorest people in Africa.

"When I was in the womb of my mother, I paid for a party card," said Augustus Maulanah, 20, at the central market here in Blantyre, Malawi's largest city. "In those days you were not allowed in the market without a card.

"As you can see, nowadays we people are free."

It has proved a mixed blessing. The bananas at the table beside Maulanah cost five times more than they did under Banda -- who died of pneumonia in 1997, presumed to be in his late nineties. And crime has risen so sharply that some people have stopped growing crops that can be easily carried away in the night.

"I miss Banda," said Patrick Kazembe, 29. "I'm not living well."

The strongman's successor replies to that by handing out cash at campaign rallies.

"I have the money," boasts Muluzi.

The affable Muluzi was elected president in 1994 in Malawi's first free election since independence. Banda had bowed to internal pressure a year before, allowing a referendum on multiparty politics that passed overwhelmingly, and Muluzi bested him and two other candidates by taking 47 percent of the vote. Since then, however, he has gotten low to middling marks from both local and foreign observers.

On the one hand, Muluzi inherited a state that no longer could count on the West's Cold War largesse -- or on generous donations from South Africa, now that the apartheid regime that Malawi supported has given way to democracy.

But neither has Muluzi departed from tradition. He joined the then-underground United Democratic Front after falling out of favor as Banda's second in command. As president, Muluzi closed Banda's detention camps but embraced his trappings -- putting his own face on the currency and adding the honorific that came with an honorary doctorate. He also replaced a well-regarded election commissioner with party operatives who this spring turned away untold thousands of would-be voters attempting to register in areas Muluzi did not carry five years ago.

But Banda's successor may be best known for what one observer called "the democratization of corruption."

Who owns that stretch limousine gliding down the shabby main street of Blantyre? "The minister of transportation," a pedestrian replies. "He owns the bus company. See the connection?" If Banda amassed fabulous personal wealth, Muluzi's entire cabinet is widely regarded as for sale.

"They have amassed so much wealth so quickly, while ignoring the public's problems," said Shyly Kondowe of the Malawi Institute for Democratic and Economic Affairs, one of a handful of homegrown organizations working to stabilize democratic institutions.

Yet Muluzi's principal challenger in today's polling is Gwanda Chakuamba, who also served as Banda's second in command. He heads the ticket of Banda's Malawi Congress Party -- which still includes John Tembo, the power behind the throne during Banda's later years. The ticket's vice president is from the Alliance For Democracy, founded as a reform party.

There are, however, some hopeful signs. Malawi's army, after disarming the Young Pioneers, a paramilitary group, in 1993, has played no part in politics. The judiciary appears independent, last week ruling that the state-owned Malawi Broadcasting Corp. must cover other candidates as religiously as it does Muluzi.

And Muluzi's party has not had a majority in parliament, preventing the scenario seen in Kenya and Zambia, still governed as one-party states despite multiparty elections.

But the bottom line is that voters today found a ballot without a major presidential candidate unsullied by association with Banda.

"All of them are guilty," Kondowe said, "and the people have nowhere to turn."

CAPTION: Malawians walk past a mural urging support for the chief opposition party. None of the parties lacks ties with the nation's former ruler.

CAPTION: Malawian President Bakili Muluzi votes in elections held yesterday. He has been accused of corruption.

CAPTION: Former Malawi dictator Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda died of pneumonia in 1997. He ruled for 30 years. (1989 PHOTO)