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Malawi Ex-President Challenges Electoral Body Decision to Bar Him from Election

Attorneys for Malawian former President Bakili Muluzi will today (Monday) challenge in court a decision by the Electoral Commission declaring him ineligible to compete in the May 19 general election. The commission late Friday barred the former president from contesting the election saying he had already served two consecutive terms as Malawi's leader from 1994 to 2004. Observers believe the move could potentially plunge the country into a constitutional crisis and escalate political tensions in the country. Incumbent President Bingu Wa Mutharika has hailed the electoral commission's ruling.

Fahad Assani is the lead attorney for former President Muluzi. He tells reporter Peter Clottey that the electoral commission is to blame for the current crisis.

"Indeed we have managed to have the summons signed and executed by the High Court of Malawi. And that summons is a challenge to the Malawi Electoral Commission to ensure that the decision that they have made barring the former president who served two consecutive terms up to 2004 is allowed to come back in 2009," noted Assani.

He said the opposition UDF has its job cut out if the court agrees with the electoral body barring the former president from participating in any other election after serving two consecutive terms as the country's leader.

"Well that one is a decision that has to be made by the party because it is the party that is challenging the decision of the Malawi Electoral Commission. Because as you may be aware, what has happened is that the electoral commission took so long to make a decision on the eligibility of the former president and they (EC) are not even presenting alternatives to the more than three million voters who we know are UDF supporters. And now that kind of decision will disenfranchise the UDF supporters totally is not acceptable," he said.

Assani expressed confidence that the court will rule in the former president's favor after considering the facts.

"We are quite confident that the electoral commission made quite a grave legal error, which the court has to come in and redress because our constitution has provided the condition that would be required for one to stand as a parliamentary member or a presidential candidate. At the same time, our constitution talks of the tenure of office, it refers to the president who is not a former president as to what condition one can be on that seat once elected. So, they (EC) are using the provision which is there for somebody who has been elected, but not for the condition for one to be elected in terms of eligibility," Assani pointed out.

He denied the former president is to blame for a possible constitutional crisis due to his plans to stand for another round of election after serving two consecutive terms as Malawi's leader from 1994 to 2004.

"Far from it, since he was elected as the UDF presidential candidate, that was April 2008, he has always said that it is the people who want him to be the touch bearer for the party (UDF). Now this thing has been so topical throughout that time whereby if the electoral commission was indeed acting in good faith ought to have said, you are not eligible because you have served two consecutive terms. They never wanted to make any decision and even when the papers were presented on February 24 this year, the electoral commission kept these papers until after a month and two weeks and now to say you are not standing," he said.

Assani said the electoral commission should have taken a cue from the ongoing controversy surrounding the former president's eligibility after he was elected as the presidential candidate for the opposition UDF last year.

"There is a lot of bad faith with the electoral commission because had they said when people as well civil organizations were calling upon them that they should inform the nation whether a former president who had served two consecutive terms is eligible or not, these things could not have been in existence today. But it is the electoral commission that has created this atmosphere of uncertainty or the so-called or perceived constitutional crisis. It is not the former president," Assani noted.

Former President Muluzi contends that the EC was politically pressured to prevent him from representing the opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) party in the upcoming election. He cited claims and rhetoric by incumbent President Mutharika which that he would not be allowed to participate in the general election, after Mutharika described his move as illegal.

But opponents of former President Muluzi's candidacy are of the opinion that the spirit of the constitution was to bar leaders from ruling the country for life, thus the two-term limits.

Malawi's constitution limits presidents to two terms but silent on whether a former president can run again, which has incessantly led to demands by some Malawians for the law to be reviewed.

Muluzi, was Malawi's leader from, 1994 to 2004 after expressing his desire to contest as presidential candidate for his former ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) although he already served as president for a maximum of 10 years.

He was arrested last month and charged with stealing millions of dollars given to Malawi by international donors during his decade as president, ending in 2004.

Muluzi denies any wrongdoing, but despite his legal problems, he reportedly has considerable grassroots support in some parts of the country.