Malawians may pay for politics

Malawi’s budget is stuck in Parliament in a snag that could halt the donor funding on which the country heavily depends.

Several weeks ago President Bingu wa Mutharika told Parliament that the 2008/09 budget of 229billion kwacha (R2,5billion) had to be passed by last week Friday, “failing which MPs will not get their salaries and allowances—including the former president [Bakili Muluzi]”.

This is the second consecutive year that the budget has been held up by a political impasse between the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the United Democratic Front (UDF), led by Muluzi.

The stand-off between government and opposition stems from the fact that Mutharika formed the DPP only after he had won the 2004 general elections on the UDF platform.

When he did so, 60 MPs migrated to the new party with him, violating section 65 of Malawi’s Constitution, which prohibits floor-crossing.

The section says that any MP who joins another party represented in Parliament should declare his or her seat vacant.

The departure of Mutharika and the MPs angered Muluzi, who vowed to remove the president from office in the 2009 elections.

Mutharika, meanwhile, said that the UDF and the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) want to use the anti-floor-crossing legislation to remove him from office and that Muluzi wants to return to power.

“It is my duty to ensure that every Malawian is protected and if there are some people who have decided to mess up things they will be arrested,” he said.

“The problem Malawi is facing is not because I left the United Democratic Front but because the former president Bakili Muluzi is failing to retire after serving for two consecutive terms.”

Muluzi, with MCP president John Tembo, is pushing the Speaker of Parliament, Luis Chimango, to act on section 65.

After MPs conceded to heavy international pressure to pass the 2007/08 budget last year, the government said it would address the questions raised by section 65, but the issue was never resolved.

Now the speaker is unable to apply the law because government MPs have obtained court injunctions restraining him from acting against them for crossing the floor.

The MCP says it cannot discuss the national budget in Parliament “unless the current mediation talks on [the] political impasse between government and opposition are concluded”.

Led by Roman Catholic Archbishop Tarcisius Ziyaye, religious leaders are mediating talks between the three main parties, which started three weeks ago. In the talks the DPP is represented by Henry Chimunthu Banda, Minister of Transport, Housing and Public Works, the UDF by George Nga Ntafu and the MCP by Respicious Dzanjalimodzi. Nothing has come of the talks so far.

A lengthy stalemate seems likely. Dzanjalimodzi says that Mutharika should not threaten the opposition on the question of passing the budget, while the UDF says it will start discussing the budget only “when it is ready”.

One political commentator argues that church leaders “are wasting their time [by mediating] in talks. Time for the two rival parties to reconcile has gone.”

The International Monetary Fund and other international donor agencies have urged the parties to agree on passing the budget “so that poor Malawians do not suffer.” More than half of Malawi’s budget comes from international donors.

The main problem is that donors cannot provide budgetary support if there is no budget. Malawi is heavily dependent on donor aid and is expecting to receive an estimated $640-million for 2008/09, 36% more than it received last year.

“At £70-million a year DFID [the British government’s department for international development] is already the largest partner, [but] Malawi remains under-resourced and DFID will be providing an extra £15-million in the next three years,” Gillian Meron, a British international development minister told the Mail & Guardian this week.

Meron also said that she was not ready to comment on the budget impasse but that the British government was watching the political events with keen interest.

About 60% of the 12,6-million Malawian population are considered to be living in poverty.

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