May 19, 2004

Country votes new president and parliament

Malawi is scheduled to go to the polls for general elections - this amidst polling delays, allegations of bias on the part of electoral officials, and deepening poverty. The ballot had initially been set for May 18, but was postponed by the High Court after a coalition of opposition parties complained that up to a million people may have been excluded from an updated voters' roll, which lists 5.7 million people. The Court also asked to take charge of 1.6 million surplus ballot papers which the coalition and civil society groups had feared would be misused by the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF). This ruling was later overturned by the Supreme Court, on the grounds that it would have been impractical to recall these papers from the districts to which they have already been distributed. The case marked the latest hiccough in an increasingly fraught campaign. The Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) has come under fire for allegedly favouring the UDF during the campaign, by failing to ensure equal and fair coverage of all parties by state radio and television. The MEC is also accused of turning a blind eye to isolated incidents of campaign violence.

Weighty issues are at stake in the election - not least the burden of poverty. A 2003 study by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) notes that the living standards of Malawians have not improved during the UDF's 10-year rule. In 1994, the UDF pledged to reduce poverty by - amongst other things - giving small and medium-sized companies loans to expand their activities. While several lending institutions were set up to do this, most of them had folded by 1999 - citing the non payment of debts. The unhappy results of this were coupled with a privatisation policy that labour activists claim has led to substantial lay-offs from state-owned companies. On the positive side, inflation has come down to 11 per cent; a decade ago, it hovered at 45 per cent. But donors, who provide 38 percent of the national budget, continue to express concerns about government's management of the economy. In April, the International Monetary Fund had again decided to withhold funds that had been loaned to Malawi under the Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility, (a previous moratorium came to an end last October). The move was apparently prompted by over-expenditure on the part of Lilongwe.

In the absence of donor funding to supplement the budget, government has resorted to borrowing from the domestic market - acquiring a 433 million dollar debt that the new administration will inherit, alongside foreign debt. "Whoever comes after May 18 will carry this burden. The present domestic stock is more than half the national budget. For government to clear it, they may need to borrow more, and that is not a sustainable way of clearing debts," Kondwani Mlilima, an economist with Stanbic Bank Malawi, said. Government borrowing has contributed to high interest rates, which now run at more than 35 per cent, to the detriment of business. "Because government has been borrowing a lot to cover its deficit, it leaves the private sector with no money to invest," says Sadwick Ntonakuntha, an economist with the Malawi Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a national body for the private sector. The net result is that about 41 percent of Malawi's 12 million people live below the poverty line of a dollar a day, according the UNDP's Human Development Report for 2003. One dollar is equivalent to 107 Malawi Kwachas, which scarcely pay for bus fare to and from work, in the case of town dwellers.

Commentators have billed the presidential poll as a battle between the UDF's Bingu wa Mutharika and Gwanda Chakuamba from the Mgwirizano coalition, which brought the matter of the voters' roll to the court's attention. This follows earlier predictions that the coalition's failure to attract important parties - the National Democratic Alliance led by Brown Mpinganjira, for example - would act to its detriment. Victory will hinge on the various parties' ability to win votes in Malawi's populous south. Given that Mutharika, Chakuamba and Mpinganjira all hail from this region - and can count on a certain amount of tribal loyalty from the area - this promises to be an interesting contest.

Furthermore, impressions that Mutharika is a front man for the outgoing president Bakili Muluzi were strengthened when he promised at a rally to protect Muluzi from prosecution for possible abuse of state resources. Although Muluzi is said to have been a struggling businessman before coming to power, he has since acquired sufficient wealth to bankroll the UDF's campaign, and has even opened his own radio station: Joy 89.6 FM in Blantyre. The president's empire is also said to include a bank. In December 2003, Muluzi's former economic advisor and business partner, Kalonga Stambuli, died in mysterious circumstances after authoring a report that accused the head of state of amassing wealth from state coffers and public projects. An investigation has since revealed that Stambuli was poisoned - but those responsible for his death have yet to be brought to book. (IPS)

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