Supporters of incumbent President Bingu wa Mutharika light candles
Malawi's 5.9 million registered voters go to the polls on Tuesday in the country's tightest ever election race.
By Raphael Tenthani
BBC News, Blantyre
The battle pits the incumbent President Bingu wa Mutharika against a united opposition, in the culmination of the incessant political fighting that has consumed this southern African country in recent years.
The 75-year-old economist-turned-politician has John Zenus Ungapake Tembo, 77, as his main challenger.
Mr Tembo's Malawi Congress Party (MCP) has been the country's main opposition since it lost power 15 years ago, having been at the helm of Malawi politics for 30 years, under the one-party dictatorship of founding President Hastings Kamuzu Banda.
A former teacher and pastor's son, Mr Tembo held a number of important positions during the Banda regime, including being the Governor of the Reserve Bank of Malawi for a record 13 years.
Back to the future
His MCP has now joined forces with the United Democratic Front (UDF), led by former President Bakili Muluzi, who has widespread support in the populous Southern Region.
"The MCP brings experience to Malawi politics," said Mr Tembo.
"I belong to the past, I belong to the present and I also belong to the future.
"We are well geared and determined to bring genuine socio-economic development to Malawi."
UDF leader Mr Muluzi had intended to contest the presidential elections himself.
But he was stopped by Malawi Electoral Commission because he had already served for the constitutional two five-year terms.
However, this ruling may actually help the opposition - as Mr Mutharika won last time with just 36% of the vote, as his rivals were divided.
After Mr Muluzi's appeal was rejected at the weekend, he vowed to do his utmost to oust his friend-turned-foe Mr Mutharika "for being ungrateful".
He personally anointed Mr Mutharika to lead the UDF at the 2004 polls, but the new president jumped ship nine months into his presidency, accusing the UDF of frowning on his tough anti-corruption drive.
Several former senior government officials, including former Finance Minister Friday Jumbe, are currently answering fraud and corruption cases.
Bursting the bubble
Mr Muluzi himself stands accused of siphoning about $11m into his personal bank account from donor countries, while president - charges he denies.
"Bingu would never have been president had it not been for me," the former president told the BBC.
Former president Bakili Muluzi is backing opposition leader John Tembo
"I cannot fail to deflate a tyre I personally inflated. Come Tuesday, he is out of the State House.
"Even if I am not taking part in these elections, I still have influence on their outcome.
"I have teamed up with the right honourable JZU Tembo because we want to unite the country that has been divided because of Bingu's disregard to the rule of law. We want to restore order."
Mr Muluzi accuses Mr Mutharika of showing disregard to parliament's decisions, and arresting opponents with reckless abandon on "trumped up charges like fraud, corruption and treason".
Apart from the fraud and corruption charges, Mr Muluzi and several of his political allies, such as Vice-President Cassim Chilumpha are also answering treason cases, for allegedly plotting to assassinate the president.
But Mr Mutharika, who founded his own Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) after quitting the UDF, believes he will have his mandate to rule Malawi extended because his rule has translated into real progress for ordinary people.
"I will let the work of my hands speak for me," he said.
"Apart from removing me, the opposition has no agenda for the nation. Within the shortest of times we have built several roads and other infrastructure."
Mr Mutharika, an India and US-trained development economist, has been praised by Western donor nations for his fiscal discipline.
He has overseen economic grow of more than 8% - the world's highest this year, after the oil-rich gulf state of Qatar.
Should he lose on Tuesday, Mr Mutharika, who had a long career at the World Bank and the Economic Commission of Africa, promised he would retire from active politics.
In all, seven candidates - including Malawi's first ever woman presidential aspirant Loveness Gondwe and an independent, James Nyondo - are running for president.
Analysts say this is the closest election since the re-introduction of multiparty politics in 1994.
The country's 5.9 million voters are also electing members of the 193-member parliament. Results are expected by Thursday, 21 May.
Bingu wa Mutharika: Leading man?
Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika faces the political test of his life on Tuesday 19 May.
By Raphael Tenthani
BBC News, Blantyre
When he ditched the United Democratic Front (UDF), the party whose leader Bakili Muluzi ironically anointed him successor, people did not give the president a chance.
His newly found Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) paled at the strength of the combined opposition in the just-dissolved parliament.
But Mr Mutharika has for five turbulent years weathered the storm.
Born Ryson Webster Thom in the tea-growing district of Thyolo some 75 years ago, the school master's son adopted the more African name Bingu wa Mutharika during the 1960s.
When founding father Hastings Kamuzu Banda came to power in 1964 after Malawi - then called Nyasaland - became independent, Mr Mutharika became the first Malawian administrator in the civil service, which was then still dominated by the British.
But during the so-called "cabinet crisis" in the same year, when some senior ministers rebelled against Dr Banda's traits of dictatorship, the man destined one day for the top job fled Malawi after rumours spread that the president believed he was in cahoots with the rebel ministers.
Flight and disguise
That was when he added the "wa" in his name to disguise his identity as a Malawian.
At that time Dr Banda's state machinery used to hunt down the former dictator's opponents all over the world.
In 2004 Bakili Muluzi (front) campaigned for Mr Mutharika (behind)
Dr Mutharika first went to Zambia, then India where he studied development economics.
He later went to the United States where he obtained a doctorate in economics.
Then begun a long career as an international civil servant.
Bingu, as he is popularly known, started off at the World Bank in Washington and the Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
He then became secretary-general of the regional trading bloc - the Preferential Trade Area (PTA) - in Lusaka, Zambia.
When the PTA transformed itself into Common Market for the Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa) in 1995, Mr Mutharika became its founding secretary-general.
The economist-turned-politician's ambition to rule Malawi dates back to as early as 1992 when he became a founding member of the then underground political pressure group, the UDF.
It would rule Malawi for 10 years after the first multiparty general elections in 1994.
Mr Mutharika drafted the UDF's first manifesto and expressed interest to stand as a UDF candidate in the 1994 election.
Fall from grace
But he was upstaged by supporters of businessman and former Banda protege, Bakili Muluzi.
Mr Muluzi prevailed over Mr Mutharika on the premise that the latter had been out of Malawi for far too long.
John Tembo is viewed by many as the incumbent's main challenger
Mr Mutharika was forced to leave Comesa amid allegations of financial mismanagement.
He, however, vehemently denies this, saying it was his political opponents back home who initiated his fall from grace.
Back in Malawi, Mr Mutharika had a go at the presidency in the 1999 elections as a candidate for the little-known United Party.
He ended up the last among the five candidates.
Then he melted into the political wilderness, only to resurface from hibernation as a surprise presidential candidate for the UDF after retiring President Muluzi failed in his bid to elongate his tenure of office beyond his constitutional two five-year terms.
Mr Muluzi, who dubbed himself the "Political Engineer", sold Mr Mutharika as the "Economic Engineer".
Not a naturally charismatic public speaker, Mr Mutharika relied on Mr Muluzi to do all the campaigning - so much so that it was a complete surprise that the two fell out immediately after the elections.
Mr Mutharika blames his quitting the UDF on his former political allies, whom he accuses of frowning upon his tough anti-corruption drive.
But his move ignited his political problems in parliament since the UDF was angry that it spent so much energy on Bingu the candidate, only to be relegated to opposition ranks by Bingu the president.
The UDF joined hands with the main opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP) to give him a tough time in Parliament.
Most government bills were shot down by the combined opposition and the president had to struggle for months to pass his budgets.
But despite all this he believes the nation is behind him.
"The opposition tried all they could to frustrate my government but they failed miserably," he says.
"I believe the DPP will win these elections because the work of my hands will speak for me."
Mr Mutharika, a church-going Catholic, married his childhood sweetheart Ethel, who had roots in both Malawi and Zimbabwe.
The first lady, who had cancer, died last year. The Mutharikas have four grown children.
In his spare time Mr Mutharika told the BBC News that he dabbles in both non-fiction and fiction writing.
He has published a number of books on business and says he has two scripts for possible feature films.
Unlike most African leaders, Mr Mutharika promises he will retire from active politics if he loses the 2009 general elections or after seeing off his second term in 2014.
"The presidency is like a relay race," he says. "When you run your bit you give it to the other to continue."