Opposition leaders join ruling party

In a move which analysts say will weaken Malawi's opposition parties, the third placed candidate in last month's presidential election has announced that he is to join the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) and drop a court challenge to the poll.

Gwanda Chakuamba, the opposition Mgwirizano coalition candidate, announced the surprise move on state radio on Thursday. The Mgwirizano coalition had recently filed court papers seeking a re-run of the May election.

The ruling party candidate Bingu wa Mutharika was declared the winner of the presidential ballot, despite concerns expressed by international observers about the conduct of the poll.

Election observer groups have stopped short of endorsing the poll as both free and fair. They cited problems with voter registration, the bias of the state media and the abuse of incumbency as their major concerns.

However, Wa Mutharika was nonetheless sworn in as Malawi's new president amid clashes between police and opposition supporters protesting his inauguration in the southern city of Blantyre.

Chakuamba was considered by many as Wa Mutharika's most serious political rival during the election, but according to the poll results he finished second to John Tembo of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP).

"This is very disappointing," said political analyst Rafiq Hajat. "What Chakuamba has done has shocked everyone and it is a defeat for democracy. Chakuamba has betrayed all those who trusted him and all those who voted for him."

Analyst Edge Kanyongolo told IRIN that "Chakuamba's joining the UDF government has weakened the opposition". He said the move by Chakuamba has "shocked many people because he had insisted ... that he would not join the UDF and he would not be bought by the ruling party."

Also joining the UDF from the seven-party Mgwirizano coalition was Sam Kandodo Banda of the Mgode party.