April 3, 2003

MALAWI: No third term for Muluzi

A controversial bid for a third term by President Bakili Muluzi of Malawi appears to be over with this weekend's announcement by the ruling party of a new candidate for the 2004 election.

The bid to have Muluzi serve a third term, and a proposed constitutional amendment to allow it, had sparked political tension and acts of violence which left three people dead and many others injured. It was opposed by human rights organisations, the diplomatic community, university students and members of the clergy. Last July the National Assembly rejected proposals to amend the constitution. Attorney-general and Justice Minister Henry Phoya re-introduced the bill in February this year, only to quickly withdraw it when indications showed it would suffer another defeat.

The United Democratic Front's (UDF) National Executive Committee (NEC) endorsed 68-year-old economist Bingu wa Mutharika as its presidential candidate on Saturday, March 29. Mutharika comes from Thyolo District 40 km southeast of the commercial city Blantyre and, until February this year, was deputy governor of the Reserve Bank of Malawi before being appointed minister in the newly created Department of Economics and Planning. He holds a master's degree in economics and development planning. Until 1998, Mutharika was secretary-general of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa. He stood unsuccessfully in the 1999 Malawi presidential elections, representing his hastily formed United Democratic Party (UDP), which he later left to rejoin the ruling party. He has also held senior positions with the World Bank and the United Nations.

At the meeting, Mutharika received the most backing, beating several cabinet ministers who had indicated their interest to succeed Muluzi, who steps down when his term of office expires in May next year. Delegates at the meeting, which was chaired by President Muluzi, also decided on the candidature of former cabinet minister, Kassim Chilumpha, for the position of vice president. Chilumpha is currently serving as chairman of Blantyre Print and Publishing Company.

With this development, many Malawians have heaved a sigh of relief and expressed satisfaction that the president has halted the stormy march for a third term in office. The Third Term debate created a lot of tension in the country and saw the clergy, journalists and a number of politicians being harassed by UDF machinery.

Just two days after Muluzi announced he was giving up, he sacked his entire cabinet. Observers alleged Muluzi's decision could serve to outmanoeuvre senior members in the UDF politburo who were opposed to the succession process. In a brief statement from the Office of the President on Wednesday, Muluzi failed to give any reason for the surprise move. "Some members in the UDF top structures have been very critical of the succession process even before it was announced that Mr wa Mutharika would stand as the party candidate in the next elections. Some people believe Muluzi has imposed his will on the party and have threatened to quit the party altogether," director of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, Ollen Mwalubunju, told IRIN.

Local newspaper The Chronicle last week reported that senior UDF ministers, including Harry Thomson, Aleke Banda, Justin Malewezi and Sam Mpasu, had written to Muluzi outlining their rejection of his chosen successor.

Now Malawi is gearing up for general elections, following assurances that the Malawi Electoral Commission will finally receive financial assistance from the donor community. The chairman of Malawi Electoral Commission, Justice James Kalaile, announced that donors have finally released 52 percent of the total 2 billion Kwacha budget for the polls, where voters would be electing a president, members of parliament, and civic leaders in the May 2004 tripartite general elections. The announcement came after months of misunderstanding between the electoral body and donors on an earlier proposed budget, which was pegged at 2 billion kwacha. The delay in funding has affected the electoral calendar by at least three months. (African Church Information Service / IRIN)

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