Malawi holds presidential election

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MALEMIA VILLAGE, Malawi (AP) — Africa's second female president Joyce Banda is facing stiff challenges from a field of 12 candidates in Malawi's elections Tuesday.

Malawi's fifth elections since the introduction of multiparty democracy in 1994 started at 6 a.m. local time at most polling centers, but some delayed opening by as much as three hours because of rain and late deliveries of polling materials.

Banda, 64, was vice president and came to power in 2013 following the sudden death of President Bingu wa Mutharika. Mutharika's brother Peter Mutharika, 74, is one of the front-runners now challenging Banda, whose administration has been dogged by allegations of corruption.

A younger candidate, Atupele Muluzi, 35, the son of Malawi's first multiparty president Bakili Muluzi, appears to be attracting support from first-time voters.

And a newcomer to politics, retired pastor Lazarus Chakwera, also is getting enthusiastic support. The 59-year-old minister for the Assemblies of God church is running as someone free from fraud and corruption.

"I am proud I'm not a billionaire politician and I don't intend to be one," he told The Associated Press.

Chakwera is candidate for the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) that ruled Malawi for three decades until this southern African country's first multiparty elections in 1994. The party's reputation for abuses of basic rights, including detentions without trial and unexplained disappearances, during its 30 years in power may hinder Chakwera's candidacy.

Malawi has 7.4 million registered voters in a population of 16 million.

Banda won considerable attention after becoming president by speaking out against wasteful government spending and selling off the presidential jet and a fleet of luxury vehicles. But her administration became mired in a financial scandal dubbed "cashgate" in which millions of dollars were looted from government funds by civil servants who colluded with politicians and well-connected business leaders to make payments for goods and services that were never delivered.

At least 70 people are currently facing charges surrounding the scandal, which led international donors to freeze $150 million in aid. Foreign aid makes up to 40 percent of Malawi's budget.

Although not directly linked to Banda, the scandal may dent her chances of retaining power.

"The fact that 'cashgate' happened on my watch, I take full responsibility," said Banda while campaigning. "But the mere fact that it broke means we're seriously tackling corruption."

Polling is scheduled to close at 6 p.m. local time (1600GMT) and counting is expected to commence immediately. Results are expected to start trickling in on Wednesday.

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