/ 28 May 2004

Daunting task for new Malawian president

As Malawi’s courts grapple with the electoral challenge lodged by the opposition Mgwirizano coalition to last week’s poll, the country’s new President, Bingu wa Mutharika, is trying to win hearts and minds with talk of poverty alleviation and corruption busting.

A damning report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) revealed last year that the living standards of Malawians had failed to improve during 10 years of rule by the United Democratic Front (UDF) — Mutharika’s party. Prior to 1994, the Southern African country was led by dictator Kamuzu Hastings Banda.

At his swearing-in ceremony on Monday, the head of state put the best-possible spin on the UNDP’s findings by telling visiting dignitaries and party loyalists that “Malawi is not a poor country, and I repeat that Malawi is not a poor country. It is the people of Malawi who are poor.”

He also laid out a list of proposals to undo this paradox that included a slimmed-down Cabinet, expedited prosecution of corrupt officials, agricultural reforms to address widespread hunger — and a cut in the price of anti-retroviral drugs from their current level of about $25 a month. (This is the equivalent of a month’s wages for a civil servant. According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids, Malawi currently has an HIV prevalence rate of 15%, “the eighth-highest globally”.)

Mutharika’s “can do” approach was overshadowed by a number of developments that combined to make his first week in office a rocky one, however.

Just a day after his swearing-in ceremony, the Mgwirizano coalition — which groups seven parties — went to court to demand a rerun of last week’s general election, citing massive irregularities at the polls. The group’s leader, Gwanda Chakuamba, came third in the presidential race, after Mutharika and Malawi Congress Party (MCP) leader John Tembo.

Local and international election observers have also expressed concern about the conduct of the elections — and disputed claims by outgoing president Bakili Muluzi on Monday that the election was free and fair.

“In no place in our preliminary statement did we use either the word free or the word fair,” said the head of the European Union’s observer delegation, Marieke Sanders-ten Holte.

In a statement released on Tuesday, the EU highlighted concerns surrounding the legitimacy of the counting process, saying: “We now urge the Malawi electoral commission to rapidly publish detailed results down to the polling-station level.”

Denis Kadima, executive director of the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa (Eisa), which also sent a team to Malawi, said in Johannesburg that “many people did not find their names on the voters’ roll … We felt that many people were disenfranchised.”

For its part, the Commonwealth Observer Group noted in a statement on Monday: “The conclusion we’ve reached is that voters were free to express their wishes on election day, but because of problems with the register, the bias of state media and abuse of incumbency, the process prior to election day was unfair.”

The confusion surrounding the poll has caused tensions to boil over in various parts of the country during the past week, with up to four demonstrators killed in clashes with security forces. Business premises in the economic hub of Blantyre were also looted.

However, Eisa’s Kadima said this scenario might have been avoided if the opposition had approached the election differently.

“They didn’t learn from the lessons in Kenya where the opposition united in their ranks [in December 2002] against the ruling party. The Malawi opposition could have, between them, garnered over 1,6-million of the votes,” he said.

Anthony Mukumbwa, managing consultant for the Corporate Governance Centre, an independent governance training firm in Blantyre, said the debacle could also cause donors to look askance at future requests for aid by Malawi.

Mutharika’s ability to run the country will further be hampered by the fact that the UDF did not win a parliamentary majority in the May 20 poll. Instead, the MCP, Mgwirizano and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) announced on Thursday that they would combine forces to become the largest voting bloc in the 193-seat Parliament. Between them, the three groups hold 92 seats.

The UDF and its junior partner, the Alliance for Democracy, have 55 seats between them, while a number of independent candidates have also made it to Parliament. The fact that many of these candidates were originally from the UDF may yet count in its favour, however. By-elections for six remaining seats also have to be held within the next two months.

“Mutharika has been elected by a minority and this raises questions about the legitimacy of his mandate,” said Boniface Dulani, a political scientist at Chancellor College, a branch of the University of Malawi. The MCP, Mgwirizano and NDA have indicated that they will not join the new Cabinet.

Amid this horse-trading, observers have adopted a wait-and-see stance about the president’s reformist aspirations — not least because Mutharika went on record during the campaign to say that he would protect Muluzi from possible prosecution for alleged abuses of his position.

Ben Kalua, an eminent economist, says much will hinge on whether Mutharika removes the consent that the office of the director of public prosecution is obliged to give Malawi’s Anti-Corruption Bureau before it can take officials who are engaged in graft to task.

“This is his acid test,” Kalua said.

Last year, the Cabinet rejected proposals by the Malawi Law Commission for this consent to be removed in the interests of speeding up investigations.

The government estimates that it loses more than $9-million every year because of bureaucratic delays in prosecuting corruption suspects. — IPS