Banda looks set to lose presidency

BLACK Africa's longest serving head of state, President Hastings Banda of Malawi, appeared to be heading for defeat yesterday as early results put Bakili Muluzi, leader of the United Democratic Front, well ahead in the country's first free election since independence. But there was a worrying trend towards regional and ethnic voting, with the north central and southern regions backing their own candidates. Final results are expected this afternoon.

With about 20 per cent of the votes counted by midday yesterday, Mr Muluzi had captured 176,000 votes, compared to President Banda's 75,000. Dr Banda was pushed into third place by Chakufwa Chihana with 95,000. About 3.7 million people were eligible to vote, and they cast two ballots - one for president and one for the parliament.

In the battle for the 177 parliamentary seats, the UDF had captured 18, President Banda's Malawi Congress Party (MCP) 12 and 4 had been taken by the Alliance for Democracy (Aford) led by Mr Chihana.

But the pattern was strictly regional. The party leaders each represent the three main regions and voters were clearly backing their local representative. One UDF official was quoted as saying: 'It's not good at all that voting patterns show tribal lines. Whoever wins will have to heal these wounds - that's the only way forward for the nation.'

President Banda, now well into his nineties, has ruled Malawi like an absolute monarch since the country became independent in 1964. He is the oldest and longest-serving leader in black Africa and by far the most eccentric. Dressed in dark three-piece suit, Homburg hat and fly whisk, he banned long hair, Jehovah's Witnesses and trousers for women and drove around in the back of an open-topped Rolls Royce accompanied by hundreds of female praise-singers.

The ruling MCP is still strong in the President's central, mainly rural, region and there is a residue of respect for Mr Banda's age and status. Mr Mulusi, a former secretary-general of the MCP, comes from the south and only resigned when he was accused of embezzling party funds and it had become clear that multi-party democracy would be allowed. The UDF leadership consists mainly of former MCP apparatchiks who left the party after President Banda agreed to a referendum on multi-party democracy. Mr Chihana, on the other hand, was a former trade unionist who has a life-long record of opposition and was imprisoned for demanding multi-party democracy. He comes from the north, the region with a reputation for independence.

(Photograph omitted)