Malawi will be going for elections on 20th May. These elections will be the fifth in the country. Voters will choose the President, the 193 seat Parliament and the local administrators. Malawi registered voters top 7 millions. However many are skeptical about the chance of a real change.
Elections will coincide with Malawi’s 50 years of independence, (6 July, 1964). Malawi, formerly known as Nyasaland, is one of those countries ‘discovered’ by David Livingstone over 150 years ago, when the slave trade was still going on. On the day of the declaration of independence, a new flag of Malawi was adopted and former Nyasaland turned into Malawi, which means ‘sun rays’. Before independence Nyasaland was a British Protectorate for many years, and for about 10 years was part of the Central Africa Federation, together with Southern and Northern Rhodesia. The long years of the British Protectorate did not leave a legacy of democracy. The political, economic and military support that the British government gave to Hastings Kamuzu Banda, opened the door for a dictatorship that supported the South African apartheid regime.
The end of authoritarian rule in Malawi began in 1992, thanks to the Roman Catholic bishops of Malawi who challenged the prevailing culture of silence. In the courageous pastoral letter entitled ‘Living Our Faith’, the seven bishops reproached the Banda regime for its authoritarianism, calling for political change and the end of regime. A referendum on reintroducing multi-party democracy was held in Malawi in 1993, followed by the country’s first democratic elections in 1994. Bakili Muluzi of the United Democratic Front (UDF) got into power in 1994 after defeating Banda. In May 2004, Bingu wa Mutharika was elected president. On 5 April 2012, during his second terms in office, he died of a heart attack in Lilongwe and was replaced by his vice president Joyce Banda. She became the first female Malawian president and only the second woman to lead a country in Africa, after Liberia’s Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in 2006.
Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. Despite having never experienced the horrors of war, the country is struggling to find its way to sustainable development. Fifty percent of the state budget still depends on donor countries and the country has been suffering over the past few years with famine and the results of the economic recovery plans imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. These programs of financial restructuring and privatization do not consider the reality of a country where education has not been made compulsory in practice yet. Malawi is not a self-sufficient country in food and is entirely dependent on foreign countries for antiretroviral drugs used in the treatment of 450,000 people affected by HIV infection.
In addition to all this, the recent ‘cashgate’ scandal, was the biggest systematic looting of public money ever in Malawi’s history. Tens of millions of dollars were paid out by civil servants to companies for services that had not been supplied. The scandal broke after people took notice last year that lots of civil servants were suddenly buying houses in the suburbs of Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital.
President Banda herself might be involved in ‘cashgate’. She has already been under pressure to explain how the government sold the presidential jet that belonged to her predecessor Bingu wa Mutharika, and especially she was questioned about how proceeds from the sale were used. This big issue is emerging in a country where hospitals lack medicines to prevent and treat malaria, and in a country, where in many schools, there is only one teacher for classes of one hundred pupils.
Though Malawi citizens have been observing with interest the election campaign’s events, they are skeptical about the chance of a real change. They distrust political leaders, who don’t even lend an ear to public protests anymore.
The electoral campaign, however, has started and political leaders’ promises and messages are reaching even the most remote villages. The Malawi’s 2014 elections will be contested by four major political parties. The People’s Party (PP), which was formed by current President Joyce Banda herself in 2011 and is re-running again for the presidency. She has full control over media broadcasters and is taking advantage of this. She goes to villages, provides the poorest families with wheat, shoes, and even cows. In order to win the youth vote she has chosen as Vice-President, 37-year-old Minister and loyal collaborator Sosten Gwengwe.
Peter Mutharika, former president Bingu wa Mutharika’s brother, has been formally endorsed as the DPP’ s (Democratic Progressive Party) candidate. He can rely on the DPP’s deep-rooted structure in the country and relevant financial means. In order to appeal to Catholic voters, Mutharika, has chosen for the position of his running mate, Saulos Chilima, a devout Catholic and one of the youngest entrepreneurs in Malawi. Chilima is joining politics for the first time.
The United Democratic Front (UDF), under Bakili Muluzi’s leadership in 1994, started the process of democratization of Malawi. The party is candidating former president Bakili Muluzi’s son, Atupele Muluz, a lawyer and former minister. He has to face two problems: his very young age and the UDF’s limited presence in the country, few districts only.
Former dictator Kamuzu Banda’s Malawi Congress Party (MCP), has appointed as its presidential candidate Rev. Lazarus Chakwera. He has been chosen by the activist base although he has no experience in politics.
As for the parliamentary elections, the number of independent candidates is on the rise. This is typical of those political parties that lack internal democracy, where candidates are imposed by the party’s leading members and not by the activist base. It will be interesting to see the administrative elections’ results. It would be good for Malawi if the winning candidates were expert and willing to listen to people’s problems. Today’s skilled and honest local administrators can be tomorrow’s leaders of the country. (P.G.)