July 25, 2007

Budget vote suspended, political row deepens

Debate on the 2007/08 budget has been indefinitely suspended in a deepening political standoff between the president and the opposition-controlled parliament. The United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Malawi Congress Party have refused to debate the government's $1.2 billion budget until a dispute over the poaching of its members by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was resolved. The boycott forced the speaker of Malawi's National Assembly to call suspend the session and prompted a sharp rebuke from the government of President Bingu wa Mutharika, who bolted from the UDF and formed the DPP after winning the 2004 election.
More than three dozen members of parliament have crossed the floor to the DPP. Some are now ministers in wa Mutharika's cabinet and could be forced to resign if the opposition wins its battle to strip them of their seats. The government is currently being funded through a monthly skeleton budget. "Their demands are ridiculous. How can they say that they are going to allow us to spend on the month-to-month basis until the speaker removes the ministers? I need a cash flow and a budget to borrow from donors," Finance Minister Goodall Gondwe said. "We only have a week in which to spend the 11 billion kwacha which the same parliament approved. I need to buy fertilizer, but all this is not working now," said Gondwe, who is expected to request another temporary budget authorisation for August. The deadline for passage of the budget was originally set for June 30, but the vote was delayed by the death of first lady Ethel wa Mutharika in May.
The country has faced political upheaval since Bingu wa Mutharika fell out with his UDF colleagues after targeting officials in an anti-corruption campaign. His establishment of the DPP in 2005 and successful attempts to lure UDF and MCP members to the new party prompted calls for his impeachment from the opposition, which has accused him of disenfranchising Malawians who voted for the UDF and MCP.
Malawi's top court furthermore upheld a ruling in June preventing the breakaway DPP members from taking their seats, but a court injunction prohibited the speaker of parliament from taking action against those who had crossed the floor. Should its members lose their seats, wa Mutharika's party could be left with as few as five MPs in Malawi's 193-seat parliament.
In the meantime, donors and development agencies are worried that the political standoff might set back recovery in the agriculture sector after the 2005 drought. Since Goodall Gondwe had expressed concern that the government would not be able to buy fertiliser for distribution on time, the country’s successful fertiliser subsidy programme is seen to be in danger. "If the fertiliser subsidy programme is disrupted, the gains made in the past three years could be eroded," Sam Chimwaza, country representative of the USAID-funded Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET), warned. "The donor community is very concerned." (Rts)

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