After 28 years of whimsical but tyrannical rule, the old man, now senile and only aware and lucid on occasional days, may win office again. Malawi's 3.7 million eligible voters are reported to be finely divided between the five presidential candidates, and there is a possibility that Dr Banda may be elected. Malawi's politics are regionally divided: north, centre and south, and Dr Banda represents the populous centre of the small mountainous country. His chief rival is Bakili Muluzi of the United Democratic Front (UDF) whose strength lies in the south. But the opposition is divided between Mr Muluzi and Chakufwa Chihana of the northern-based Alliance for Democracy (Aford).
Today's presidential and parliamentary election may also result in a hung parliament in which Mr Muluzi's UDF may be squeezed out by an alliance between Dr Banda's Malawi Congress Party and Aford.
Mr Muluzi, 51, was once imprisoned by Dr Banda for allegedly embezzling state funds, but now heads an alliance of five opposition parties. Mr Chihana, 55, a trade unionist and former political prisoner, was the first heavyweight political leader to challenge Dr Banda directly. He flew back from exile and declared a new political party, but was arrested and imprisoned. But his party has remained essentially northern and has not gathered support in the rest of the country.
Dr Banda, known as the Ngwazi, the Conqueror, ruled Malawi as an absolute monarch from independence. His word was law and he banned all opposition. He vigorously opposed the continent-wide move towards multi-party democracy from 1990 and even briefly detained the Catholic bishops of Malawi when they criticised his government. Pressure from aid donors, who suspended all assistance to Malawi in 1992, forced him to allow political parties and release Mr Chihana. Last year Dr Banda agreed to hold a referendum on multi-party democracy. Nearly two-thirds of Malawians voted for multi-party democracy.
When he suffered a stroke and had to undergo brain surgery in Johannesburg last year, it seemed his rule had come to an end, but he has made a remarkable medical - and political - recovery, backed by his skilful but unpopular political adviser, John Tembo.
Ideologically all the parties are similar, promising jobs, houses, schools and more free-market economics. Economic policy is dictated by the donors as the country is utterly dependent on aid which accounts for 80 per cent of the annual budget.
Today's election is being monitored by an electoral commission and international observers, and there have already been warnings of parties posing as their opponents to try to get them disqualified and indulging in other electoral malpractices.
(Photograph and map omitted)