May 2, 2003

Upheaval in ruling party continues

Splits in Malawi's United Democratic Front (UDF) began to emerge this week as another senior official announced his resignation from the ruling party. On Thursday, May 1, Jan Sonke, a UDF lawmaker for the commercial capital Blantyre, cited the party's failure to "reduce poverty, strengthen democracy and improve the economy" as reasons for his resignation.

He is the third high-ranking UDF official to leave the party following a recent controversial decision by President Bakili Muluzi to dissolve his entire cabinet and name Bingu wa Mutharika - a political newcomer - as the UDF's candidate for the 2004 presidential elections. Two senior government ministers, Aleke Banda, for Agriculture and Irrigation, and Harry Thomson, for Natural Resources and Environment, were dropped from the cabinet, together with youthful former Justice Minister and Attorney General, Henry Phoya. In their place, Muluzi slotted in new faces from the second largest opposition party, Alliance for Democracy (Aford), appointing its president Chakufwa Chihana, as Second Vice-President in the new set up. Chihana's inclusion in the cabinet comes after he had declared interest to work with the government, which he quit six years ago, after he claimed that it was corrupt. Justin Malewezi remains vice-president. Muluzi also rewarded four other Aford Members of Parliament with cabinet positions, and created a new ministry in response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which is leaving a trail of death in the country.

Muluzi’s candidate for the 2004 presidential elections, Bingu wa Mutharika, has been retained as Economic Planning and Development Minister. Observers say the split in the ruling party could be an opportunity to entrench political pluralism in Malawi, where the UDF is seen to dominate the political stage. "Any kind of split in the UDF would be significant for the future of democracy in Malawi. Senior UDF members who are dissatisfied with Muluzi may decide to leave the party and form a new opposition. On the other hand, some may leave and join existing opposition groups," Ralph Kasambara, chairman of the NGO, the Civil Liberties Committee, told IRIN. "This will in the long term encourage healthy debate and produce a vibrant opposition. Presently, the UDF has a stranglehold on politics in Malawi and by watering down some of that power, we will eventually escape the quagmire of a state dominated by just one party," he added.

Meanwhile, John Tembo on Tuesday, April 29, was elected president of the main opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP). The MCP convention was marred by violence after it emerged that Tembo, the deputy leader of the party, had won more votes than party leader Gwanda Chakuamba, and would therefore be the party's candidate in the 2004 presidential elections. Some 15 people were injured in the clashes. (African Church Information Service/ IRIN)

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