By Mabvuto Banda
LILONGWE (Reuters) - Malawi's ruling People Party has found "serious irregularities" in the counting and announcement of results from the southern African nation's May 20 election, President Joyce Banda said on Thursday, raising fears of a disputed outcome and violence.
Reports included hackers breaking in to Malawi Election Commission (MEC) computers and ballot tallies exceeding the number of registered voters in some constituencies, prompting Banda to demand a manual count.
"It has come to my attention that there are some serious irregularities in the counting and announcement of results in some parts of the country," Banda said in a statement.
"I call upon the Malawi Electoral Commission to carry out an immediate manual audit of the whole process," she added, urging Malawi's 13 million people to remain calm during the delay.
The MEC said late on Wednesday it was abandoning its digital results platform, fuelling suspicions of skulduggery after a catalogue of mishaps surrounding the poll.
The only result released so far - a partial tally put out by the private Zodiak radio station - gave opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) leader Peter Mutharika, the brother of late President Bingu wa Mutharika, a narrow lead.
However, the People Party of Banda, who took over as president after Bingu wa Mutharika's death in office two years ago, disputed the interim total and said the count had been compromised.
"We have reason to believe that the Malawi Electoral Commission digital election management platform has been hacked by some suspected DPP operatives," PP spokesman Wakuda Kamanga said a statement.
Mutharika said police and soldiers had been sent to his residence in the capital, Lilongwe, to search for a "hacking machine" but were refused entry because they had no warrant.
"What we want as DPP is a free and fair election. We know that Joyce Banda is trying to intimidate me by sending the army and making claims of rigging," he told reporters. "That is nonsense."
The poll has been plagued by problems from the outset, with voting materials turning up hours late and ballot papers being sent to the wrong end of the country, infuriating voters in the impoverished, landlocked nation.
Organizers had to extend voting in some urban areas into a second day and initial counting was held up by a lack of lighting and generators at polling stations.
"It's true we've faced logistical difficulties but we are working day and night to fix the problems and make this election credible," MEC head Maxon Mbendera told Reuters.
United Democratic Front leader Atupele Muluzi, another presidential challenger, is also seeking a court injunction to stop announcement of the results over concerns about their veracity.
The elections are the tightest since the end of one-party rule 20 years ago.
In the absence of reliable opinion polls, most analysts had picked Banda - southern Africa's first female head of state - as narrow favorite, although recently her popularity with voters and foreign donors has been hit by a corruption scandal.
(Writing by Stella Mapenzauswa; Editing by Ed Cropley)