October 25, 2002

MALAWI: Third Term Divides Ruling Party

Proposed changes to Malawi’s Constitution have put the ruling party at odds with civil society and with itself. Malawi's third multi-party general elections are scheduled for 2004, but the country has already been thrown into political anarchy. The issue at stake is the changing of the country's Constitution to allow President Bakili Muluzi to stand for a third term of office. Constitutionally presidents are allowed two terms only. Muluzi is serving his second and final term, but his ruling party wants him to stand again. For the past two years ruling party United Democratic Front (UDF) heavyweights have been urging people to support the president to stand for another term.

Ironically, a Bill that would have allowed the president to do just that, the Open Ended Term Bill, was tabled by the opposition Alliance for Democracy (Aford) in July but failed by three votes to be passed. Barely a month later UDF executives began telling the nation the government would table another Bill, the Third Term Bill, to amend the Constitution to allow a president to stand for three terms of five years each.

The opposition, civil society and religious institution have strongly rejected the government move, arguing that it would lead to another oppressive regime. Malawi was a dictatorship under Kamuzu Banda until 1994. The Catholic Church went as far as issuing a statement calling on Muluzi to denounce the constitutional amendment bid. The president has not publicly said whether he supports the Bill, which has received very little support even within the ruling party. Some UDF MPs have openly opposed the Bill. Among them are Jan-Jaap Sonke and Joe Manduwa, who have, since their criticism two weeks ago, been fired from the party. Sonke, who was the only white person in the Cabinet, lost his post as deputy minister of works, while Manduwa was fired as deputy agriculture minister. "I was fired because I do not support the third term bid. It is a waste of time," Sonke said.

The constitutional amendment bid has also resulted in clashes during political rallies and two people have been killed. One of those killed was the governor of Mulanje district, Aleck Makina, who died in a clash between the UDF and the National Democratic Alliance, while Sam Kandodo Banda, an MP with the opposition Aford, was injured in an attack by alleged UDF sympathisers. Most MPs, especially those opposed to the Third Term Bill, said they are living in fear and accused the UDF's young democrats of being involved in "most of the attacks". But the UDF has maintained it was not involved in any political violence and the president has on a number of occasions called on Malawians to remain united.

Speaking on Malawi Broadcasting Corporation radio before he opened Parliament last week, Muluzi urged parliamentarians to concentrate on hunger, Aids and poverty when discussing issues in the House. He said it was a waste of time, energy and resources to discuss politics when the "country is facing critical food shortages". He did not touch on the third term issue during this opening speech, focusing mainly on the food crisis.

More than three million of the 11-million Malawians are on the verge of starvation. International donor communities, including the World Food Programme, have warned that Malawi will in the next few months face serious food shortage. Already hundreds of people have died of hunger. "It is a matter of great pain for me that so many people are dying of hunger. I am aware that the situation in the coming months could become worse," said Muluzi.

If Malawi succeeds in changing its Constitution, it will follow a new trend in Africa. Namibia's Constitution was recently changed to allow President Sam Nujoma to stand again, while Zambia's former president Frederick Chiluba tried unsuccessfully to change his country's Constitution. The constitutional amendment may not be in keeping with the objectives of the New Partnership for Africa's Development and the African Union, considering that the union would like to see good governance on the continent. Political analysts believe that changing the Constitution would bring in another dictator. But the UDF argues that the change would allow people to vote for the president for as long as they feel he has done a good job for them. (MAIL&GUARDIAN)

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