October 28, 2005

Political crisis takes new turn: president’s impeachment stopped

In Malawi a constitutional court has called a temporary halt proceeding to impeach President Bingu wa Mutharika. He was summoned to appear before parliament to answer eight charges, but his lawyer argued the procedures were unconstitutional. The court ordered the parliament speaker not to go ahead until it approved procedural rules.

The impeachment motion, backed by the UDF, the MCP, the Alliance for Democracy and some MPs from the Republican Party, has deeply divided the country, with demonstrations for and against taking place every day. Mutharika was saved from impeachment by parliament after a constitutional court order blocked the move, saying it needed to review the procedures for impeaching the president. Malawi's constitution provides for the impeachment of a sitting president but does not say how this should be accomplished. The opposition wants a two-thirds majority vote by the current 193-seat parliament to impeach a sitting president. The two largest opposition parties in parliament - the MCP and the UDF - already have the 124 votes between them if the constitutional court ruling is overturned.
Political bickering between Mutharika and his political rival, Bakili Muluzi, former president of the country and now chairman of the UDF, has been raging since June, when Mutharika left the party after it sponsored him in the 2004 general elections. Mutharika formed his own political organisation, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The UDF hit back with the impeachment charge, accusing Mutharika of using US $300.000 in public money to launch the DPP. He denies them, saying they are politically motivated. More than 80 MPs have signed a motion ordering him to appear before parliament.
The motion delayed approval of the country's budget, causing concern in the donor and humanitarian community. In mid-October, British High Commissioner David Pearey said the political crisis could retard the country's development, and warned politicians against putting personal ambition ahead of the concerns of ordinary Malawians.

Adding further fuel to an already tense situation, former president Muluzi faces a corruption probe that his party believes is politically motivated. According to Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) director George Kaliwo, investigations into allegations that Muluzi deposited Kwacha 1.4 billion (US $11.4 million) of donor funds into his personal account will continue. This was despite Muluzi having won a High Court injunction restraining the ACB from questioning him.

In the meantime, Britain and other key aid donors to Malawi have announced that they would not support a new government if President Bingu wa Mutharika was impeached. Top foreign lender Britain was joined by the European Union, South Africa, the United States, Norway, France and Germany, in saying in a statement that impeachment would mar Malawi's image abroad. "The government that would be ushered in if impeachment succeeds would be less likely to enjoy support of the international community," the donors said in a statement. "The image (of Malawi) abroad would be marred because the government would have risen to power through hasty means and a process that is not transparent or constitutional enough," said the statement sent to Malawi's political parties. Asked what that meant, one Western ambassador explained: "The message from us is clear. Donors will not give aid in such circumstances. The process of confidence building is long." The donors said their action was not an attempt to muzzle parliament but the process of impeachment distracted Malawi from tackling its huge problems of fighting hunger and poverty.

In response, Malawi's opposition have asked donors to keep out of their country's "internal matters". Speaking during a phone-in programme on a local radio station, a former UDF MP, Phillip Bwanali, commented, "Donors must not dictate to us on what to do - Malawi is a sovereign state, and what is happening here is an internal matter and does not involve the donors." Opposition MPs have proposed that a National Governing Council (NGC), headed by Malawi Congress Party (MCP) president John Tembo, run the country for six months in the event of Mutharika's impeachment. However, donors have commented that, "given the uncertain and transitory nature" of the proposed NGC, "we cannot be certain of being able to build a satisfactory relationship with such a body".

Donor community opinion is vital to the country's economy. Political analyst Boniface Dulani pointed out that although Malawi was a sovereign state, "financially, it is fair to say the donors do run matters, since they contribute a big chunk of the national budget". Donors financed 83 percent of Malawi's 2004/05 development budget. (Scotsman, United Kingdom/ Business Day, South Africa)

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