Malawians vote in test for political stability

Malawians voted in presidential and parliamentary elections on Tuesday that could rekindle political instability in the southern African country, which has become one of the world’s fastest growing economies.

President Bingu wa Mutharika, standing for a second term, is favoured by foreign investors because of reforms that have helped bring billions of dollars of debt relief and annual growth of 7% for the past three years.

But he faces a challenge from long-time opposition leader John Tembo, who is backed by former president Bakili Muluzi, Wa Mutharika’s rival whose own attempt to run was blocked by the courts in a ruling that has fanned tensions

The election is a test of political stability in largely peaceful Malawi after a protracted power struggle between Wa Mutharika and Muluzi prompted a failed impeachment bid and allegations of a coup plot, unnerving crucial Western donors.

Food security is the top issue for Malawi’s 13-million people, two-thirds of whom live on less than $1 a day, and many voters credit the government’s fertilizer subsidy programme with helping to increase food production, to the extent that Malawi now exports the staple maize to its neighbours.

“I am voting for food in the country,” said market trader Chifundo Mvula, making clear her allegiance to the presidential camp despite voting in a traditional opposition stronghold.

Buoyant growth
The Economist Intelligence Unit has forecast that Malawi will have the world’s fastest growing economy this year—after Qatar—but annual gross domestic product is estimated at $313 per capita and Aids has orphaned about one million children.

Political upheavals have delayed approval for state budgets and rattled donors, who provide more than one third of budget financing for the tobacco-growing country, which recently began producing uranium.

The opposition has raised concerns about the possibility of vote-rigging, and investors will be watching closely for signs of how Africa’s democratic credentials are holding up after polls in Kenya and Zimbabwe unleashed violence last year.

“So far voting is going well,” Malawi Electoral Commission chairperson Justice Anastasia Msosa told Reuters, as long lines of voters formed in the capital Lilongwe. “If this trend continues we are projecting a huge turn-out compared to the last election in 2004.”

Seven candidates, including one woman, are standing in Malawi’s presidential election. One opinion poll done two months ago by the Afrobarometer reasearch group with the University of Malawi has tipped Wa Mutharika to win.

But the unlikely alliance of Tembo, a former leading figure in the government of late dictator Hastings Kamuzu Banda, and Muluzi, who toppled the longtime strongman in 1994, could pose a challenge.

Wa Mutharika took office in 2004 following an election marred by violence and accusations of rigging.
Muluzi stepped down that year after a failed attempt to change the constitution to let him stand for a third term.

Critics say Wa Mutharika has neglected the poor.

“The greatest challenges that the country faces in the coming four years are the fight against poverty, putting more people on free Aids treatment and consolidating the food security situation,” said political commentator Rafiq Hajat.—Reuters

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