/ 18 May 2009

Malawi election to give public verdict on political feud

Malawi’s presidential elections on Tuesday will give voters their first say on a years-long power struggle that has paralysed the government after a bitter split among the nation’s most powerful leaders.

The campaign has unfolded in the shadow of President Bingu wa Mutharika’s decision to turn against his one-time mentor, Baklili Muluzi, who has repeatedly tried and failed to find a way to return to power after reaching his two-term limit.

Mutharika broke away from Muluzi’s party to form his own Democratic Progressive Party four years ago, but he took along less than a third of the 193 members of Parliament.

That has left him unable to pass major legislation while fending off impeachment attempts.

Mutharika has still won popularity with many poor Malawians through a subsidy programme that discounts seeds and fertiliser for the millions of subsistence farmers struggling to survive in a country where the per capita income is only $210.

He now hopes to win a majority in the presidential race and enough seats in Parliament to give him a firm grip over government for the first time — but analysts say that’s unlikely.

“Chances are that he will still have a minority government, unable to win half of the seats,” political analyst Wiseman Chijere Chirwa said.

Muluzi, who only on Saturday lost his court battle to seek a third term, has thrown his weight behind the main opposition leader, John Tembo.

Tembo is the leader of the Malawi Congress Party of former dictator Kamuzu Banda, and has struggled to distance himself from his past as the autocrat’s right-hand man in a deeply repressive regime.

Fearful that the political tensions could spark rioting as the results come out, religious groups on Monday urged electoral authorities to take “maximum care to avoid fuelling violent conflict”.

“We do not want Malawi to follow the Zimbabwean and Kenyan scenario where there was deliberate disregard of the will of the people,” the Public Affairs Committee, a group of Christian and Muslim denominations, said in a statement.

Despite the tensions, European Union observers say the campaigning that ended on Sunday has been smooth.

“Overall, the campaigning seems to have been all right. Freedom of expression has been assured by everyone in accordance with international standards,” Luisa Morgantini, head of the EU’s observer mission, said.

The nearly 3 900 polling stations will open at 6am local time on Tuesday and close 12 hours later.

Counting of the votes will start immediately, but final results are not expected until Thursday, election commission spokesperson Fegus Lipenga said.

“We are ready for the elections and we want to ensure Malawians that the elections will be conducted in a free and fair manner,” Lipenga said.

“We are urging voters to come en masse on May 19 because polling day has been declared a public holiday to allow eligible voters to cast their ballots,” he added.

One bright spot in the political feuding appears to be a shift in Malawi’s traditional voting patterns, which have closely followed regional and ethnic lines in the country’s three previous elections, said political analyst Fidelis Edge Kanyongolo.

Mutharika, a southerner, has won appeal outside his region, while Tembo — part of the central Chewa tribe — has made inroads in the south, he said.

“We have seen a departure from simple regional arithmetic,” he said, saying Malawi would emerge with a “new configuration of the political landscape”. — AFP