Tag: Malawi elections

Tough road ahead for Malawi’s Mutharika

(Pic: AFP)
(Pic: AFP)

After days of confusion, court injunctions, accusations of vote rigging and a series of irregularities with the voting process, Malawi finally has a new president. Peter Mutharika, an academic and a younger brother to Bingu wa Mutharika, Malawi’s former president who died in office in 2012, was sworn in on Saturday and inaugurated on Monday, June 2. He is Malawi’s fifth president.

Mutharika’s victory, with only 36% of the national vote, does not represent a total change in local politics; it is more of a continuation of his brother’s presidency, which was punctuated by Joyce Banda’s two-year rule. Bingu wa Mutharika died while lining up his young brother to succeed him. Peter’s victory has accomplished that mission, which seemed improbable when a heart attack cut short Bingu’s life on the morning of April 5 2012.

Joyce Banda, then state vice president, replaced the late Mutharika, in line with a constitutional provision.

On May 20 this year, Banda led her own party into an election for the first time. She lost badly, finishing a distant third with 20.2%, after Mutharika’s 36% and Lazarus Chakwera’s 27.8%. It is the first time in Malawi that a sitting president has lost an election since the country held its first democratic election in 1994.

Mutharika’s much-anticipated inaugural speech on Monday did not live up to most Malawians’ expectations. It lacked the weight and clarity of the speech his brother delivered 10 years ago. But then it touched on almost every sector of the economy, from tomato vendors to foreign policy. Perhaps this underlines the fact that Peter Mutharika is more of an academic than a politician, unlike his brother. In fact, it’s unlikely that Peter Mutharika would be in politics today had his brother not ruled Malawi first.

Most parts of his speech were a carbon copy of his party’s manifesto. The promise of a small cabinet of no more than 20 ministers, for instance. This is a big deal in Malawi, a country that is used to having up to 40 cabinet ministers, including their deputies.

Mutharika made it a point to clarify that he has no axe to grind with his rivals. Singling out his arch-rival Joyce Banda, Mutharika expressed his disappointment at her absence at the inauguration ceremony even though she had been invited

The rivalry between Mutharika and Banda dates back to the time when Banda deputised Bingu. Banda is on record saying that Bingu promised that she would succeed him, but this changed when Peter Mutharika came into the picture. Bingu opted for his young brother as a successor. The row led to Banda’s expulsion from Mutharika’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Banda and few colleagues then formed their own political group, eventually registering it as the People’s Party (PP). Bingu’s death meant that Banda would form a government, taking her party with her and therefore relegating DPP to opposition benches.

Peter Mutharika and few DPP top officials tried in vain to prevent Banda from succeeding  Bingu. Their attempt to stop her from ascending to the presidency later resulted in Peter Mutharika and his colleagues being charged with treason – charges that still stand. With the recent turn of events, however, the treason charges against Mutharika are unlikely to stick as sitting presidents in Malawi have immunity from prosecution.

In fact local analysts believe the tables will be turned, and it will be Joyce Banda facing prosecution now, most likely on corruption charges. Many unresolved high-profile corruption cases happened on her watch, most notably the colossal looting of over $100 million from government coffers by senior civil servant and politicians, known as “Cashgate”. The fact that Mutharika says he wants to bury the past and move on may be assuring but history shows that every former president in Malawi has faced a court case of some kind. Joyce Banda will be aware of this.

Foreign policy
The other key issue to emerge from Mutharika’s inaugural speech was foreign policy. It’s clear that the new president is not sure of western donor support. He said foreign policy would be based on “what is best for Malawi”, adding that Malawi would continue with traditional relationships with donor countries and organisations “but we are now looking for new friends in the emerging economies such as Brazil, China, India, South Africa and Russia”.

It is a loaded and multifaceted statement but it shows that Mutharika is accurately aware that he has his work cut out insofar as winning confidence of traditional donors is concerned. To start with, at the time of Bingu’s death, most donor countries had deserted Malawi due to Bingu’s undiplomatic tendencies, poor governance and his increasingly autocratic behaviour. Crucially, Peter Mutharika was foreign affairs minister at the time; he must have been involved in diplomatic negotiations one way or another. It is most likely that most donors have grown cold feet at Peter Mutharika’s victory. Mutharika’s emphasis on looking for “new friends” suggests that he is worried about it.

Furthermore, Mutharika has inherited a government that has lost 40% of annual budget support which comes from donors. Donors decided to withhold this support late last year in response to the “Cashgate” revelations. Convincing donors to release the cash will be Mutharika’s first task. The president needs no reminding of how much Malawi suffered economically under his brother’s rule when donors froze budgetary support. Bingu died with Malawi’s economy on the verge of collapse – Peter Mutharika cannot afford to start his presidency on this note.

Irrespective of his victory, Mutharika still needs to win the confidence of a lot of Malawians. Sixty-four percent of Malawians voted against him. He won the election via the country’s shambolic first-past-the-post voting system, which does not require a re-run even if the leading candidate fails to get more than 50% of the vote. Bingu Mutharika initially came to power in 2004 with only 35% of the national vote. However, his excellent performance in his first term won him a second term with a landslide of 63%. Peter will be looking to achieve the same, albeit under different circumstances.

Jimmy Kainja is an academic, lecturing at Chancellor College, University of Malawi. Hes also a current affairs and political analyst and blogger. He is interested in news media, communications and political & social changes, particularly in Malawi. He blogs at www.jimmykainja.co.uk. Follow him on Twitter: @jkainja 

Malawi’s new president seeks ‘new friends’ in Brics

Malawi, traditionally dependent on Western aid donors, will look for “new friends” in countries such as China and Russia, newly-elected President Peter Mutharika said at his inauguration on Monday.

The ceremony at a stadium in the commercial capital Blantyre was boycotted by outgoing president Joyce Banda, who was soundly beaten by Mutharika in disputed elections held on May 20.

Mutharika, who takes power in one of the world’s poorest countries where 40% of the budget comes from aid, said the donor nations were “welcome to stay here”.

Foreign policy would be based on what is best for Malawi, he said.

“We will continue with traditional relationships, but we are now looking for new friends in emerging economies such as Brazil, China, India, South Africa and Russia.”

Mutharika said he regretted Banda’s absence, saying she had “declined to come here and hand over power to me.

“I was looking forward to shaking her hand and burying the past. I have an olive branch in my hands.”

A spokesperson for Banda said: “She was not officially invited and her official presidential convoy was withdrawn early hours of Saturday as soon as it was announced that Peter Mutharika had won the presidency.

“It would have been difficult for the outgoing president to travel to Blantyre.”

Malawi's President Peter Mutharika of the Democratic Progressive Party waves to supporters after he was sworn in in Blantyre on May 31 2014. (Pic: Reuters)
Malawi’s President Peter Mutharika of the Democratic Progressive Party waves to supporters after he was sworn in in Blantyre on May 31 2014. (Pic: Reuters)

Treason charges
Mutharika takes over despite facing treason charges for attempting to conceal the death in office two years ago of his brother, Bingu wa Mutharika, in an alleged bid to prevent Banda – then vice-president -from assuming power.

Those charges are likely to be dropped as Malawian presidents have immunity from prosecution while in office, and there has been speculation that Mutharika might now try to turn the tables on Banda and have her charged with corruption.

Banda had alleged anomalies in the election and sought to have the vote nullified.

Legal attempts to force a recount failed and the electoral commission declared Mutharika winner with 36.4% of the votes cast against Banda’s 20.2%.

Banda on Saturday congratulated Mutharika on his victory.

Malawi votes in closely contested election

Malawians voted on Tuesday in the most closely contested election since the end of the one-party state two decades ago, with incumbent Joyce Banda, southern Africa’s first female head of state, facing no fewer than 11 challengers.

In the absence of reliable opinion polls, most analysts rank People’s Party leader Banda as the favourite because of her popularity in rural areas where she has been rolling out development projects and farm subsidies.

Polling stations opened more or less on time at 0400 GMT in the capital, Lilongwe, although logistical problems in the southern commercial hub of Blantyre delayed the start of voting, adding to a tense and acrimonious pre-poll atmosphere.

Many of Banda’s rivals have already cried foul, saying they have unearthed plots to rig the ballot. Diplomats say they have seen no credible evidence of vote-rigging, but delays – for whatever reason – may fuel the sense of unease and distrust.

There were chaotic scenes at a polling centre at a school in a Blantyre township, with hundreds of voters milling around for several hours while officials waited in vain for election materials to arrive.

“There’s no ink. We’re still waiting for the consignment,” one of the officials told the frustrated crowd.

Banda came to power in the landlocked, impoverished nation two years ago after her predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika, died in office.

President Joyce Banda waves to the crowd gathered in Lilongwe for the official launch of her electoral presidential campaign, on March 29 2014 in Lilongwe. (Pic: AFP)
President Joyce Banda at the launch of her electoral presidential campaign on March 29 2014 in Lilongwe.  (Pic: AFP)

In her first months in power, Banda, who grew up in a village in southern Malawi, enjoyed huge goodwill from many of the country’s 13 million people who had grown to hate Mutharika’s autocratic style.

But she saw her popularity wane after she was forced to impose austerity measures, including a sharp devaluation of the kwacha, to stabilise the economy.

More recently, her administration’s reputation for probity has been hit by a $15 million corruption scandal, dubbed ‘Cashgate‘ after the discovery of large amounts of money in the car of a senior government official, that has soured relations with donors.

More than 80 people have been arrested and a former cabinet minister has been dismissed and put on trial for money laundering and attempted murder but urban voters in particular have criticised Banda’s response as ponderous and ineffectual.

Banda’s main challenger is Lazarus Chakwera, an evangelical pastor who retired from the church last year to lead the Malawi Congress Party, the rejuvenated party of the late Hastings Banda, who ran the former British colony with an iron first in its first three decades of independence.

Mutharika’s younger brother Peter is also running as the head of the Democratic Progressive Party. Another prominent contender is Atupele Muluzi, son of former president Bakili Muluzi, who took over from Hastings Banda in 1994.