President Bingu wa Mutharika, standing for a second term, is a favourite for foreign investors because of reforms that have helped bring billions of dollars of debt relief and annual growth of 7 percent for the past three years.
Many people in the country of 13 million also credit the government’s fertiliser subsidy programme with helping to increase food production, to the extent that Malawi now exports the staple maize to its neighbours.
"I am voting for food in the country," said market trader Chifundo Mvula, making clear her allegiance to the presidential camp despite voting in a traditional opposition stronghold.
Wa Mutharika’s main rival is long-time opposition leader John Tembo, backed by former President Bakili Muluzi whose attempt to run was blocked by the courts in a ruling that has fanned tensions.
Recent political upheavals have delayed approval for state budgets and unnerved donors, who provide more than one third of budget financing for the tobacco growing country which recently began producing uranium.
The Economist Intelligence Unit has forecast that Malawi will have the world’s fastest growing economy this year — after Qatar — but two-thirds of Malawians live on less than $1 a day and AIDS has orphaned an estimated one million children.
Seven candidates, including one woman, are standing in the presidential election.
Wa Mutharika took office in 2004 following an election marred by violence and accusations of rigging. Muluzi stepped down that year after a failed attempt to change the constitution to let him stand for a third term.
Critics say wa Mutharika has neglected the poor.
"The greatest challenges that the country faces in the coming four years are the fight against poverty, putting more people on free AIDS treatment and consolidating the food security situation," said political commentator Rafiq Hajat.