/ 28 February 2005

Corruption-busting president to form new party

Will they or won’t they? This question is on the lips of political observers in Malawi at present, as they wait to see whether substantial numbers of ruling coalition or opposition members will support the country’s newest political grouping: the Democratic Progressive Party.

At stake is the future of party founder, President Bingu wa Mutharika, who resigned from the United Democratic Front (UDF) earlier this month. The UDF, which only controls 49 of 193 parliamentary seats after last year’s general and by-elections, rules Malawi with support from other political parties and independent legislators.

Mutharika’s departure came amidst increasing animosity between the president and Bakili Muluzi — former head of state and current UDF chairman — over an anti-corruption drive that has seen 10 former cabinet ministers implicated in graft cases.

With suspicions having been voiced about certain aspects of Muluzi’s conduct whilst he was in office, many wondered whether the probe might not ultimately encompass the former leader as well. Muluzi is under scrutiny for accumulating what appears to be disproportionate wealth during his presidency.

In recent weeks, Mutharika has also arrested, then pardoned, several UDF officials whom he accused of planning to assassinate him. Now, the president faces the prospect of trying to push bills through parliament in the absence of any real legislative support should efforts to establish the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) fail.

In the immediate aftermath of Mutharika’s resignation, it was reported that the cabinet had thrown its support behind him. Of late, newspapers and radio stations have also made frequent announcements of resignations by UDF members at different levels — executive regional and district.

But, acting UDF spokesman Sam Mpasu does his best to throw cold water on these reports.

”Those that have resigned from the executive are just a minority. This has not had any ripple effect on the UDF grassroots members,” he told IPS, adding — for effect: ”You can count the defectors by fingers. They are not many.”

Nonetheless, he refused to provide figures to bolster his argument.

The DPP is equally reticent. DPP member Uladi Mussa, a former UDF governor for Malawi’s central region, said that negotiations to get the support of UDF members were ongoing — but that figures on how many might provide it were not conclusive at this stage.

The picture becomes a little clearer as concerns parliamentarians outside the UDF camp.

The Republican Party, which had formerly been in partnership with the UDF, says its 15 legislators are willing to form a coalition with the DPP.

According to Mussa, the Progressive People’s Movement, the Movement for Genuine Democracy and the Malawi Foundation for the Union of Democracy are also being consulted — but no decisions have been made on their relationship with the DPP.

Of 50 independent legislators, 23 have come out in favour of Mutharika’s new group. ”We like his principles, so we’re going to work with his party,” said Gift Mamondwe, the chief whip for the independent legislators.

As debate over future membership and coalition partners for the DPP continues, a parallel discussion is underway over whether Mutharika’s split from the UDF will really further his anti-graft crusade.

”We decided to leave the UDF so that we could fight corruption without fear and favour,” said Mussa.

But Collins Magalasi of the Malawi Economic Justice Network, a non-governmental group which monitors governance, says a new party was not essential in this regard.

”He (Mutharika) does not need a political base to deal with corrupt UDF officials. It’s the law, and the institutions set to enforce such laws, which can do that — not a party,” he notes.

The UDF and a number of civil society groups have also queried Mutharika’s source of funding for the DPP, with UDF officials alleging that the new party may be planning to misappropriate government funds. The presidency denies the charge.

Ironically, Mutharika was hand-picked by Muluzi as a successor — and initially viewed as being little more than a puppet who would allow Muluzi continued rule from behind the scenes. Before leaving office, the former president had tried to get parliament to amend the constitution to allow him to stand for a third term in office.

However, Mutharika’s conduct since becoming president has proved anything but predictable. The DPP is scheduled to be registered on February 28. — IPS