May 9, 2002

Third term controversy - US food aid

Malawian President Bakili Muluzi has maintained an official silence over a controversial campaign to change the constitution to allow him to run for a third term in 2004, but opposition leaders are demanding that he make his position known.

Since January, Muluzi has held a series of country-wide rallies doling out development funds, which he describes as "coming to see you to listen to your problems" visits. Apart from alluding to future plans for the betterment of the country, he has not referred directly to the hotly disputed issue of whether he intends to stand for an unconstitutional third term. Newly-appointed Minister of Justice and Attorney General Henry Phoya, recently said there would be no government bill to amend the constitution to provide for a third term.

But some members of the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) party have been less reticent. A private members bill is expected in the next sitting of parliament on 31 May. Local chiefs, who have been put on the government's payroll, are being lobbied by the UDF to support a third term. Regional governors, appointed by Muluzi, have also weighed in with their support for the president. Southern Malawi governor Davis Kapito told Muluzi that the country wanted him to continue as president. "Whether you like it or not, you will stand again," Kapito told the president. Kapito said members of parliament were free to amend the constitution because they represented the people. "After all, the people who framed the constitution were just picked from here and there. They did not represent the people," he argued.

The UDF has 92 seats in the 193-member parliament, well short of the two-thirds majority needed for constitutional amendments. However, the two major opposition parties - the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and the Alliance for Democracy (AFORD) - are split. Both have factions that are working with the government.

The third term issue is debated almost daily in the media. On Tuesday, May 7, during a phone-in programme on independent Capital FM radio, nine callers out of 10 said the president should step down at the end of his term of office. Some said the argument that there was no one better qualified than the incumbent was the same used by the praise singers during the single party dictatorship of Kamazu Banda. The Catholic and Anglican churches, Muslim clerics and several other organisations have all publically opposed a third term. Opposition strongman Brown Mpinganjira, who heads the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) pressure group, has called for a constitutional conference to discuss the matter.

Mpinganjira, a powerful former minister who was dropped from cabinet in 2001 on corruption charges, has also suggested that not everybody in the UDF would like to see Muluzi stand again after his second five-year term expires in 2004. "Most curious has been the silence by some UDF heavyweights such as Vice-President Justin Malewezi, UDF Party Vice-President Aleke Banda [also agriculture minister], minister Harry Thompson and National Assembly Speaker Sam Mpasu," Mpinganjira reportedly wrote in a letter to Muluzi on 3 May. "These four have not voiced out any support for the third term. It may not be far fetched to conclude that their silence means opposition of the third term issue," read the letter in part. Recently, the British High Commission, representing Malawi's biggest single bilateral donor, warned against rushing to amend the constitution before wider consultation.

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