The opposition and some Western observers had predicted a landslide in favour of free elections, while the government said it was confident of large majority in favour of continued one-party rule.
More than four million people voted yesterday in Malawi, whose government is the last in sub-Saharan Africa to bow to pressure for political change.
A close majority in favour of retaining one-party rule would allow President Hastings Kamuzu Banda to continue in office and give him an excuse to clamp down on the burgeoning democracy in the country.
But the new parties would be sufficiently encouraged to continue the struggle for democracy. A finely balanced result could leave President Banda too weak to govern but too strong to be overthrown.
A result against multi-party democracy would almost certainly not be accepted by sections of the opposition, which was confident of a substantial majority in its favour. Western donors would find it difficult to resume aid, which was suspended last year as part of Western pressure for political change.
The atmosphere at the polling stations yesterday, even in those districts where trouble might have been expected, was one of restrained excitement. Thousands of people had gathered at the polling stations before dawn, some of them walking through the night to vote. There were no reports of lawlessness or voting irregularities.
While voters in towns and rural areas in the north and the south voted mostly in favour of change, the conservative rural heart of the country seems to have voted for Dr Banda and a continuation of his one-party rule. There were strong indications that women and older people in the poor farming areas in the central region were choosing the symbol of the black cock on their voting slips - standing for one-party rule - and rejecting the lamp, the symbol of change.
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