Mutharika offers talks to calm troubled political waters

Malawi's opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) has cautiously welcomed an informal offer by President Bingu wa Mutharika to begin cross-party talks aimed at easing political tensions.

Mutharika reportedly said at the weekend that he was prepared to meet with former president Bakili Muluzi of the UDF and John Tembo, leader of the opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP), to find solutions to their political differences.

But UDF spokesman Sam Mpasu told IRIN on Wednesday that the party had yet to receive a formal invitation to the proposed talks.

"The UDF has always been open to dialogue, and this is definitely a step in the right direction, but we have on several occasions been promised an audience with the president, only to find out that the meeting is aborted at the last minute," Mpasu commented.

One of the issues the UDF would raise at any future meeting was Mutharika's "governance style", he said. "It is very authoritarian - we are alarmed that the president has used public meetings to berate and belittle the UDF. This must change, and during our meeting we will make him very aware of our dissatisfaction."

Although Mutharika has ruffled feathers since he took power in May last year - mainly because of his strong anti-corruption stance - the current political imbroglio is largely about Muluzi, who anointed him as successor to the top job, and Mutharika's apparent disregard for the party that won him the presidency.

After several public salvos between the two politicians, Mutharika formed his own political party, consigning the UDF to the role of an opposition party. At the end of June anti-Mutharika parties attempted to impeach the president, but the collapse of the Speaker during a heated parliamentary debate on the issue its postponement until September.

In what the UDF describes as a "relentless political witch hunt", Mutharika this week fired Muluzi's sister, Esnath Phiri, a special assistant to the president for children's affairs. Phiri said she was ostensibly released from her position because of incompetence, but the UDF has argued that her appointment was terminated because she refused to join Mutharika's recently formed Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

"This is a blatant abuse of power," Mpasu claimed. "Although the president said she was let go of because of her performance, it is quite clear that he [Mutharika] will only work with those who are willing to switch political affiliations and join his party."

Government spokeswoman Patricia Kaliati refuted the allegations, saying Phiri's dismissal was based on her poor performance, and had "nothing to do with her affiliation to the UDF".

She said it was unfortunate that the UDF had politicised the affair, as it would further alienate the president from opposition parties.

"The president has opened the doors for discussion with the opposition - it doesn't help anyone if parties continue to make wild accusations," added Kaliati, who could not name a date for the proposed talks.

In a further twist, the Alliance for Democracy party (Aford) this week announced it would cross the floor and join the opposition in parliament.

The move has elicited a mix response, with observers labelling it a "necessary and politically strategic" move by the party's leadership.

Aford, headed by Chakufwa Chihana, has been racked by factionalism: some members support Mutharika, but almost half have voiced concern over his policies.

In January Chihana was sacked from his leadership position, but a Supreme Court of Appeal reinstated him in August, saying that the National Executive Committee, which removed him from his post earlier this year, had violated the party's constitution.

Rafiq Hajat, director of the Institute for Policy Interaction, commented, "Aford has been a troubled party, often supporting policies promulgated by the government in return for whatever consideration. By moving to the opposition, it would give them a chance to look more critically at legislation, and an opportunity to assess their own role in Malawian politics."

However, Kaliati said the decision would do a "great disservice to the people who voted for the party".

"They [Aford] would do much better if they stayed and worked with government - this is just another example of a party who changes direction at a whim," she remarked.

Aford could not be reached for comment.

The UDF lost its parliamentary majority during elections last year, winning just 49 of the National Assembly's 193 seats. The MCP took 59 seats while the Republican Party managed to capture 17 seats and Aford just six. The remainder went to independents and other smaller parties.

Mutharika has managed to remain in power by relying on a shifting coalition of parties and political personalities.