Malawian President Peter Mutharika arrives at the Democratic Progressive Party’s final election rally in Blantyre, Malawi, on Saturday. (Thoko Chikondi/AP)

Rumors circulated last week that Malawian President Peter Mutharika, 78, was seriously ill or dead — and that his party’s leadership was hiding this because of Tuesday’s elections in which Mutharika is seeking reelection. Meanwhile, Mutharika’s opponents, including Vice President Saulos Chilima, 46, now an opposition candidate, held many campaign events, touting their energy and vitality.

Malawians will vote in the country’s sixth election since the 1994 end of single-party rule. Citizens will vote for three offices: president, member of parliament and local government councilor. But it’s the presidential race that has captured everyone’s attention.

Here are the three real contenders

Mutharika, of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), is facing stiff competition. Of the seven candidates, two are particularly close: Lazarus Chakwera, 64, the parliamentary opposition head, who’s run before; and Chilima, the vice president.

Chakwera is president of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), which was the ruling party during the country’s dictatorship (1964-1994). A former church pastor, Chakwera serves as the MP for Lilongwe Northwest constituency and hails from Malawi’s central region, where the MCP’s support is strongly concentrated.

Except during the 2009 elections, presidential competition in Malawi has been regional: Malawians in the central region favor presidential candidates from the center, Malawians in the southern region favor fellow southerners, and so on. Presidential candidates choose running mates from regions different than their own to draw support from beyond their strongholds.

Chakwera’s VP pick, MP Sidik Mia, is from the south. A devout Muslim, Mia could attract votes from Malawi’s Muslim population, which has traditionally voted for the United Democratic Front party. Chakwera will also draw support from the northern region, where his wife is from, in part because he’s been endorsed by former president Joyce Banda, who was supported by the north in the 2014 election.

Chilima is the third serious contender. Chilima’s ascension to vice presidency on the 2014 DPP ticket was the first time he’d been elected to public office. He comes to politics from an executive position at Airtel, one of Malawi’s mobile service providers. Chilima hails from the central region, likely one reason why Mutharika chose him as his running mate in 2014 — to draw support away from the MCP.

Chilima has been critical of the ruling party, charging that the DPP — including its leadership — was deeply enmeshed in corruption. Chilima left the DPP in 2018 to join a burgeoning political-movement-turned-party, the United Transformation Movement (UTM), which nominated him to run for president. Branding himself a political outsider, Chilima urges Malawian voters to “drain the swamp” by electing him and his fellow UTM candidates for parliament to fight corruption.

Chilima’s running mate is Michael Usi, another political outsider. Usi hails from southern Malawi and previously worked as Malawi’s director of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency.

Mutharika’s running mate is Everton Chimulirenji, minister of Civic Education, Culture and Community Development and an MP from Chilima’s home district in the central region. Chimulirenji was hardly known before becoming Mutharika’s running mate.

Rarely do VP candidates matter in Malawian elections. But given the rumors about Mutharika’s ill health, voters may consider the strength of VP candidates and whether they would govern well if they assumed the presidency.

Why has Mutharika’s health loomed large this election?

Rumors about Mutharika’s health came two weeks after several leading DPP figures, including his running mate, had confused him with his late brother, Bingu wa Mutharika, and described the president as deceased. And these rumors are not the first time Malawians wondered about Peter Mutharika’s health.

There’s history behind Malawians’ concern. In 2012, then-President Bingu wa Mutharika died of cardiac arrest at age 78. The death was kept secret from the public for two days, at which point his estranged VP, Joyce Banda, assumed the presidency.

Given Malawi’s youthful population — just over half of the registered voters for these elections are under 35 — the electorate might favor Chilima, who has made a deliberate effort to target the youth vote, exemplified in his wife’s recent viral rap video.

Malawi’s electoral system favors the (unpopular) incumbent

Mutharika has an incumbency advantage. His campaign uses a fleet of government vehicles and he gets most of the coverage from the publicly owned Malawi Broadcasting Corporation television and radio. Malawi’s traditional leaders are banned from endorsing candidates, but several openly endorsed Mutharika, urging their subjects to vote for him.

Mutharika needs these advantages. It is not obvious he will win the election, and if he does, he’ll likely do so without a majority. There are no publicly available data for nationally representative surveys collected immediately before the 2019 elections. Still, we can share some insights from the 2016/2017 wave of Afrobarometer and from a September 2018 poll conducted by Malawi’s Institute of Public Opinion and Research (IPOR). The IPOR survey highlights the impact of Chilima/UTM entering the fray:

  • In the Afrobarometer survey, MCP and DPP presidential candidates had the most support, with 32 percent and 27 percent, respectively. However, UTM’s entry appears to have eaten into MCP support. While DPP support remained at 27 percent in the IPOR survey, MCP support had dropped to 24 percent with the upstart UTM preferred by 16 percent of Malawians.
  • As for parliamentary races, the 2018 IPOR survey showed the same preference order as the presidential race, albeit with reduced margins: 27 percent of voters said they would vote for a DPP parliamentarian, 23 percent for MCP and 10 percent for UTM.

Boniface Dulani (@bonidulani) is a senior lecturer in political science at Chancellor College, University of Malawi and the operations director of Afrobarometer, a cross-national public opinion survey conducted in more than 30 African countries.