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Malawi – May elections, the rock and the hard place

Malawi goes to the polls on May 20 in a series of elections that one way or another may well define the country’s medium to long-term future. Local authority, national legislative and presidential polls are all scheduled for the same day. Incumbent President Joyce Banda and her People’s Party (PP) face a major challenge from at least two opposition leaders: Peter Mutharika, brother of the late president Bingu wa Mutharika and leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and Atupele Muluzi, the son of former president Baliki Muluzi and head of the United Democratic Front (UDF).

Paul Simon once described “going to the candidates’ debate” as a case of “whichever way you look at it you lose”. While he was writing and singing about a United States (US) presidential debate (probably the one between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960), his words apply equally to Malawi. President Banda seems unable to escape mudslinging graft accusations, her economic and monetary policies to date have hurt more than they have helped and her popularity is slipping. The ‘Cashgate’ crisis of missing donor money is adding further damage. But her main opponents – Mr Mutharika and Mr Muluzi – look like worse choices. The former all but attempted a coup when his brother Bingu died in office in April 2012 and Vice President Banda – the constitutionally mandated replacement – was side-lined in a palace putsch that ended only when the military intervened in support of the constitution. This Mutharika has shown himself to be no improvement on his late brother who dragged Malawi perilously close to destruction. Mr Muluzi and his allies in civil society and specifically the media have orchestrated a campaign to mobilise foreign donors against President Banda’s regime on the back of the Cashgate scandal with little thought of the consequences for the country. He went so far in early April to warn voters that foreign donors would not support Malawi in future unless there was a change of government – major donors in the European Union (EU) and multilateral institutions strongly denied this allegation and stopped just short of accusing Mr Muluzi of lying. Local media in Malawi were less polite.

President Banda won some kudos in early April when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) praised her government for prudence in the management of funds after the Cashgate revelation of tampering with government’s financial system to swindle billions of kwacha from the public purse. In a statement the IMF said that Malawi’s government was prudently managing funds after the Cashgate scandal. That was the signal for other donors as well, but they are likely to wait for the elections and other financial management issues to be resolved first. Good news for Malawi but that may not be much help for President Banda with voters.

Meanwhile Malawi’s Electoral Commission has officially invited both local and international poll observers to monitor the May elections. Malawi’s first ever triple election is generating significant interest from both local and international stakeholders, according to local media. Advance teams from observer groups now in Malawi include the African Union (AU), the Institute of Sustainable Democracy in Africa (ISDA), the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Electoral Commission’s Forum, and the SADC Parliamentary Forum. The EU and individual EU members states are expected to send observer missions.

WHY DO WE CARE? A free and fair election is nothing short of essential in Malawi next month, given the Cashgate scandal and the response of some foreign donors to temporarily suspend a tranche of budget aid. Former president Bingu wa Mutharika, through a combination of repression, economic mismanagement and a ‘go to hell’ attitude toward foreign donors, was taking Malawi down a path to destruction before his death. President Banda began the painful resuscitation with much promise but became bogged down in what many regard as Malawi’s institutionalised corruption, donor problems and Cashgate as well as declining popularity as her policies began to bite. Malawi needs to get back on track and the most likely catalyst for that is a fresh term for President Banda and the PP, but such an outcome seems a little way off. The alternatives are not pretty.

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