/ 19 May 2004

Election time for ‘freer but poorer’ Malawians

Malawi is scheduled to go to the polls on Thursday for general elections — this amid polling delays, allegations of bias on the part of electoral officials and deepening poverty.

The ballot had initially been set for Tuesday May 18, but was postponed by the High Court after a coalition of opposition parties complained that up to a million people may have been excluded from an updated voters’ roll, which lists 5,7-million people.

On May 13, the court ruled that the opposition had to be given time to inspect the roll.

It also asked to take charge of 1,6-million surplus ballot papers that the coalition and civil society groups had feared would be misused by the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF). This ruling was later overturned by the Supreme Court, on the grounds that it would have been impractical to recall these papers from the districts to which they had already been distributed.

The case marked the latest hiccough in an increasingly fraught campaign. The Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) has come under fire for allegedly favouring the UDF during the campaign by failing to ensure equal and fair coverage of all parties by state radio and television.

The MEC is also accused of turning a blind eye to isolated incidents of campaign violence.

Weighty issues are at stake in Thursday’s election — not least the burden of poverty.

A 2003 study by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) notes that the living standards of Malawians have not improved during the UDF’s 10-year rule.

As Britain’s High Commissioner to Malawi, Norman Ling, observed last month, ”Malawians have become freer but poorer” over the past decade. Ling made the comment to delegates at an annual conference of economists held in the capital, Lilongwe.

In 1994, the UDF pledged to reduce poverty by — among other things — giving small and medium-sized companies loans to expand their activities. While several lending institutions were set up to do this, most of them had folded by 1999 — citing the non-payment of debts.

The unhappy results of this were coupled with a privatisation policy that labour activists claim has led to substantial layoffs from state-owned companies.

On the positive side, inflation has come down to 11%; a decade ago, it hovered at 45%.

But donors, who provide 38% of the national Budget, continue to express concerns about the government’s management of the economy.

Last month, the International Monetary Fund again decided to withhold funds that had been loaned to Malawi under the Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility (a previous moratorium came to an end last October). The move was apparently prompted by over-expenditure on the part of Lilongwe.

In the absence of donor funding to supplement the Budget, the government has resorted to borrowing from the domestic market — acquiring a $433-million debt that the new administration will inherit alongside foreign debt.

”Whoever comes after May 18 will carry this burden. The present domestic stock is more than half the national Budget. For government to clear it, they may need to borrow more, and that is not a sustainable way of clearing debts,” says Kondwani Mlilima, an economist with Stanbic Bank Malawi.

Government borrowing has contributed to high interest rates, which now run at more than 35%, to the detriment of business.

”Because government has been borrowing a lot to cover its deficit, it leaves the private sector with no money to invest,” says Sadwick Ntonakuntha, an economist with the Malawi Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a national body for the private sector.

The net result is that about 41% of Malawi’s 12-million people live below the poverty line of $1 a day, according the UNDP’s Human Development Report for 2003. One dollar is equivalent to 107 Malawi kwacha, which scarcely pays for bus fare to and from work, in the case of town dwellers.

”The difficulties they [the electorate] are having to obtain simple daily necessities can cost somebody a vote,” says Paul Kwengwere, president of the Economics Association of Malawi. The association groups the country’s economists.

Commentators have billed the presidential poll as a battle between the UDF’s Bingu wa Mutharika and Gwanda Chakuamba from the Mgwirizano coalition, which brought the matter of the voters’ roll to the court’s attention.

This follows earlier predictions that the coalition’s failure to attract important parties — the National Democratic Alliance led by Brown Mpinganjira, for example — would act to its detriment.

Victory will hinge on the various parties’ ability to win votes in Malawi’s populous south. Given that Mutharika, Chakuamba and Mpinganjira all hail from this region — and can count on a certain amount of tribal loyalty from the area — this promises to be an interesting contest.

The UDF’s daily rallies have been marked by pomp and ceremony, with state radio providing live coverage of the bands, long convoys of vehicles and helicopters in attendance.

Muluzi, with his booming voice, has assured party hardliners ferried from all parts of the country that nothing is going to get in the way of a third UDF victory.

”All that we’ll be doing is to put Bingu wa Mutharika on the throne. It’s just a formality, amayi ndi abambo [ladies and gentlemen],” he said at a recent event. Election observers from the European Union have drawn the ire of the head of state for allegedly inciting voters to cast ballots for other parties.

At more than 75 years of age, Mutharika has appeared exhausted by the campaign trail, and cannot address supporters for sustained periods without Muluzi chipping in to assist.

”He [Mutharika] has not had a chance to emerge as a leader. It’s fair to say that many people look at him as Muluzi’s man, and he has been unable to come out and say I am my own man — this is what I will do,” says Boniface Dulani, a political scientist at Chancellor College, a branch of the University of Malawi.

From 1992, Mutharika served as secretary general of the Lusaka-based Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa. He was fired from the post in 1997 — allegedly for swindling almost $70 000 from the organisation.

The UDF torchbearer strongly denies the allegations, claiming the affair was trumped up by a group of disgruntled staff.

Impressions that Mutharika is a front man for Muluzi were strengthened last year when he promised at a rally to protect Muluzi from prosecution for possible abuse of state resources.

Although Muluzi is said to have been a struggling businessman before coming to power, he has since acquired sufficient wealth to bankroll the UDF’s campaign, and has even opened his own radio station: Joy 89.6 FM in Blantyre. The president’s empire is also said to include a bank.

In December 2003, Muluzi’s former economic adviser and business partner, Kalonga Stambuli, died in mysterious circumstances after authoring a report that accused the head of state of amassing wealth from state coffers and public projects.

An investigation has since revealed that Stambuli was poisoned — but those responsible for his death have yet to be brought to book. — IPS