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MALAWI: Special report on general elections

lilongwe, 19 May 2004 (IRIN) - Malawi marks a decade of multi-party democracy with general elections on Thursday, which analysts warn are not only too close to call but, if mismanaged, could spark unrest.

The seven-party opposition Mgwirizano (Unity) coalition, led by veteran politician Gwanda Chakuamba, is running the ruling United Democratic Front's (UDF) Bingu wa Mutharika a close race, but attention has also focused on the capacity and independence of the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC).

Voter registration figures of 6.6 million released earlier this year by the commission were widely condemned as unreliable, reflecting a failure to properly update the rolls. The number of legal voters contracted dramatically to 5.7 million after a South African computer company was called in this month to help clean up the registers.

MEC SHAMBLES

"It's been a complete and utter shambles, but we think it's more cock-up than conspiracy," one Western diplomat told IRIN. "But what it does do is open the door to manipulation of the vote."

Mgwirizano took the commission to court for an extension of the 18 May election date to allow for proper scrutiny of the voters' roll and won just two extra days, which, some analysts pointed out, merely added to the confusion.

Based on its original calculation of registered voters, over seven million ballot papers were printed by the MEC - another issue seized on by the opposition as having created an opportunity for electoral fraud. The high court last week granted custody of the excess papers to the courts, rather than the commission, but that decision was overturned by the Supreme Court of Appeal on Tuesday.

"Over seven million ballot papers were printed - [the excess] is enough to tilt the balance in any contest," said Rafiq Hajat, director of the Institute for Policy Interaction. "If they are not secured beyond any doubt - and I don't just mean reasonable doubt - there will definitely be a bone for contention and it means the election will not be accepted."

"Our electoral commission is not independent," alleged Boniface Tamani, chairman of the Public Affairs Committee, an interfaith democracy monitoring group. "The electoral commission is in the arms of the ruling party - that's the problem."

But UDF publicity secretary Ken Lipenga told IRIN: "All well-intentioned observers agree the problems we're facing [over the voters' roll] have nothing to do with ruling party interference, and more to do with the ineptitude and limited resources of the MEC."

Although Malawi has been able to fairly effectively manage its regional and religious differences over the past decade, Hajat said he remained concerned that there was a possibility of political conflict in a tight election.

"You've got to remember, [for] a lot of these candidates - I would say four out of the five candidates - this is their last shot at the title. It is winner takes all, and a roll of the dice to determine. So, obviously, if the roll of the dice is deemed to be loaded, [violence] will erupt - no doubt about it - there's too much at stake."

Outgoing president Bakili Muluzi said this week that a vote for any of the four opposition candidates would "plunge our nation into the politics of anger, discord and revenge". He advised Malawians to "conquer fear with love and vote for Dr Bingu wa Mutharika as my successor".

Alongside the challenge from Chakuamba, wa Mutharika, an economist hand-picked by Muluzi to succeed him, faces three other presidential rivals: John Tembo, a close associate of the former dictator Hastings Kamuzu Banda and leader of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), which ruled the country for 30 years until 1994; Brown Mpinganjira, a powerful early member of the UDF who fell out of favour with Muluzi and launched his National Democratic Alliance; and Justin Malawezi, Muluzi's former vice-president, who is standing as an independent.

"If these people had united, it would have been very easy to defeat us, but some individuals stayed out of the grand coalition and that has been very much to our advantage," the UDF's Lipenga acknowledged.

FREER BUT POORER

Malawians go to the polls on Thursday freer after a decade of multi-party democracy, but a good deal poorer. Around 85 percent of the population live below the poverty line; 65 percent are illiterate; privatisation shed jobs rather than creating employment; a strained relationship with donors at times froze assistance; and two successive years of bad weather, beginning in 2001, hit food security.

"They liberalised very quickly, took a lot of the IMF's harsh measures, but didn't do the other things - they were not very friendly to investors, for example," a Western diplomat said. "Had this administration balanced its budget over the last five years, it would have had a predictable donor flow [of financial aid] and would have prevented a real mess."

Corruption has also been a cause for concern among donors and political activists. "The proceeds from privatisation are nowhere to be seen, and also the manner in which the companies were sold: the whole process of privatisation has not been owned by the people of this country," said Tamani.

According to Lipenga, "there have always been allegations around corruption. The difference between the one-party rule era and now, is that people are free to discuss it - the point is, we've admitted that we have a problem in this country."

Thirty years of draconian and highly personalised rule evaporated with the 1994 elections. Muluzi's first term in office, which introduced a liberal constitution and laid the foundations for democratic rule, has generally been rated a success by analysts.

"What we're saying is, you cannot feed democracy to starving people, or human rights. The starting point has got to be economic empowerment; the redistribution of wealth," Hajat remarked.

"In 1994 the UDF started very well. Between 1994 and 1999 the priorities were to create political institutions, such as the Office of the Ombudsman, the Human Rights Commission and the Law Commission," said Edge Kanyongolo, a law lecturer at the University of Malawi's Chancellor College.

"But these efforts have been badly squandered in the past five years. During the UDF's second term of office, there has not been any political tolerance," he added, referring to the emergence of the UDF's militia, the Young Democrats, and the frequent acquiescence of the police to their use of violence.

Muluzi narrowly won the 1999 elections by just over 300,000 votes against Chakuamba, then at the helm of the MCP. The result was challenged by the opposition, who alleged vote rigging. In retribution, "instances of violence were reported, especially in the Northern Region, where anti-UDF demonstrators set some mosques ablaze," according to a 2003 report, "Malawi's Process of Democratic Transition". Muluzi is a Muslim, as are around one-fifth of Malawians.

"We've developed the institutions of democracy, but it hasn't yet been consolidated into the inculcation of the spirit of democracy and the culture of democracy among the populace," said Hajat.

Part of the problem, some commentators suggest, is Malawi's politics of personalities and its weak party system. "The development of political parties has been based on personalities - it's the big challenge we have ahead of us. We really need to find a way to develop political party systems and political programmes that are not based on individuals," lawyer and deputy leader of the Republican Party, Bazuka Mhango, told IRIN.

ONE MAN'S AMBITION

While political leaders have jostled for power, splitting their parties, joining and quitting coalitions, civil society has slowly emerged as an increasingly effective counterpoint. Arguably its finest hour was the resistance to Muluzi's attempt to alter the constitution to extend the presidential term of office to a third, or open term.

"Civil society has shown the ability and the will to coalesce into a force that cannot be ignored," said Hajat. "The trick is to tap that source and make it more sustainable."

Unable to generate enough support in parliament for a constitutional amendment, Muluzi reportedly ensured that he selected his own successor. The choice of wa Mutharika, who quit the UDF to form his own party to stand in the 1999 elections and finished last, led to several senior UDF members leaving the party.

"It was a good first term, but the second term was derailed by the third-term issue and then drift. Malawi let itself be completely derailed by one man's ambition," said the diplomat.

Overshadowed on the campaign trail by a larger-than-life Muluzi, who retains the party chairmanship, wa Mutharika is widely seen as being there to protect Muluzi's interests. He has publicly pronounced his loyalty, telling one rally: "I want to show the world how the relationship between the incumbent presidents and their predecessors should be."

"The UDF is an appendage of Bakili Muluzi. He supplies all the funds, all its resources, and it seems it's his energy and his will that holds the party together," said Hajat.

For more coverage see:

Profiles of the presidential candidates

Interview with analyst Rafiq Hajat

Theme (s): Governance,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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