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Malawi Polls:  Testing the Country's Institutions

In Malawi, some members of the opposition have expressed concern that next week's elections may not be free and fair. They say, for example, that the government failed to consult with parliament in naming the members of the electoral commission, which critics say is made up largely of supporters of President Bingu wa Mutharika. The president denies the charge and says he followed the law in choosing the commissioners.

Dimpho Motsamai, a researcher for the Institute for Global Dialogue in Johannesburg,says she's watching issues that could undermine the validity of the polls. One of her concerns involve allegations that Malawi's parties have not respected electoral laws, Supreme Court rulings and the constitution.

She says in the 2004 elections, critics accused the electoral commission of favoring the winning party, the United Democratic Front, UDF. This year, she says, the commission is again the center of controversy. The opposition accuses President Bingu wa Mutharika of not following the legal procedures in appointing the board. The president has the power to appoint commission members, but only after consulting with the political parties in parliament.

"It seems when the final [candidates for commissioner] were [announced by wa Mutharika]," says Motsamai, "there was not even a single name put forward by the opposition parties in parliament. On that basis, the ruling party is perceived to have pushed for an agenda that would ensure that in some way they are favored in the .... elections."

As a result, she says the opposition may not see the poll as valid if the ruling party wins.

Motsamai says there are sometimes no penalties when parties break the law. She says the best example of this is members of parliament who switch parties, or "floor-cross," without due process.

For example, the United Democratic Front party sponsored President wa Mutharika 2004. Later, he left the UDF to form his own party, the Democratic Progressive Party, DPP. Other UDF members joined him.

The UDF tried to get parliament to expel MPs who had joined the president's new party, the DPP, on the basis of laws that bar MPs from leaving parties that sponsored their election. If successful, the expulsions would enable the two main opposition parties, the UDF and MCP, to form a two-thirds majority in parliament -- enough to impeach President Mutharika and effectively remove him from power. However, President Mutharika responded with court injunctions that prevented the speaker of parliament from expelling the MPs.

The opposition argues that the court injunction restraining the speaker of parliament Louis Chimango, from declaring the defectors' seats vacant and expelling them is anti-democratic and unconstitutional. The defections have continued.

"This is a trend in Malawi," says Motsumai, "one [MP] defecting to another [party]. You can not speculate who would have a real majority because the politics are so volatile."

Motsomai says the problem could be solved next week with what she calls the "legitimate" election and appointment of MPs. But the issue of how to address those who defect in the future still remains.

The election may determine the future of the alliance between two of the country's three largest parties, the UDF and the MCP.

The Supreme Court has ruled that former president Bakili Muluzi, who served for two terms until 2004, cannot run again for president. As a result, he led his United Democratic Front into an alliance with the Malawi Congress Party, which had ruled the country for decades under former dictator Hastings Kamuzu Banda. In next week's elections, Muluzi has promised he and the UDF will support MCP candidate John Tembo for president.

"The alliance has confused Malawians," says Motsamai.

"The parties have two different manifestos and it was an expedient arrangement and one wonders if it will be sustained over and beyond these elections…it has the potential to consolidate more of the electorate in the particular provinces. So it does raise the prospect of a very contested election."

Motsamai says all of these tensions could lead to a disputed election, and to the weakening of the Malawi's democratic institutions. On the other hand, successful polls would help consolidate democracy in Southern Africa.