January 28, 2003

Scuffles delay decision on Muluzi third term

Debate on a proposed constitutional amendment which would allow President Bakili Muluzi to run for a third term has been deferred indefinitely following scuffles outside and inside parliament on Tuesday, January 28.

Sources in the capital told IRIN there was a heavy police presence around parliament, where police had to fire teargas at protestors on Monday, January 27.

Debate on the proposed amendment had to be postponed for the first time on Monday following clashes in Lilongwe and Blantyre between police, pro-third term protestors and anti-third term protestors. Muluzi had earlier banned all protests around the issue.

When debate resumed in parliament on Tuesday, an eyewitness in the chamber told IRIN the atmosphere was charged. So much so that scuffles broke out on the steps of parliament, a clergyman was apparently beaten, and inside parliamentary chambers. A ruling party MP was reportedly injured inside chambers. He said: "It was clear the ruling party was going to lose again. Soon after [the scuffle inside parliament] the minister of justice announced that they had decided to refer the debate to a special legal affairs committee of parliament, to look at comments that had come from the opposition and the ruling party. Later on the attorney-general was briefing reporters outside [saying] that there was no time-frame when it [the amendment bill] would come back to parliament."

It was uncertain in what guise, if at all, the bill would return to parliament as the legal affairs committee was chaired by an anti-third term opposition MP.

Donors, on whose development aid Malawi depends heavily, have warned Muluzi against amending the constitution and trying to hold on to power. Muluzi's bid for a third term suffered its first setback in early July 2002 when a bill proposing an amendment to the constitution was narrowly defeated. A second attempt at tabling the bill in October 2002 - after Minister of Justice Henry Phoya proclaimed the government's intention to amend the constitution in a government gazette - failed again due to opposition pressure.

Civic organisations and church groups have rallied in opposition to the proposed third term amendment, said Nicholas Mkwabata of Public Affairs Committee, a lobby group constituted by churches. He told IRIN there was widespread opposition to another term for Muluzi. The group had organised protests and was lobbying heavily against the amendment bill. The ruling United Democratic Front had caught opposition and civil society off-guard with the surprise tabling for the bill for debate in an emergency session of parliament. "We did not know this bill was going to be tabled, so yesterday [Monday] most of the opposition members of parliament were hoping they could get to vote [against it]. But the vote was delayed," Mkwabata said. (IRIN)

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