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Vol 61 No 14

Published 9th July 2020


Lazarus rising

Political pluralism gets a boost as the President balances the demands of voters with those of his broad coalition

While former President Peter Mutharika finally packed his bags and sought solace at an official government holiday residence on Lake Malawi, newly elected President Lazarus Chakwera faces the same challenges that have foxed so many of his predecessors. His fragile coalition with Vice-President Saulos Chilima is beset already not only with the challenges of the coronavirus, but also with squaring the insistent demands of those who helped him to victory with his ringing pledge to eradicate corruption and bad government.

His inauguration was held with just 100 people present because of concerns about infection spreading in the stadium event originally planned for 6 July, also Independence Day.

A growing youthful population, corruption at all levels, ineffective civil service and poverty that ranks Malawi as one of the five poorest in the world are among the challenges he must address. His campaign made extravagant promises and significantly raised expectations.

The Assemblies of God pastor turned politician finally won the election with 2.6 million votes, or 59%, beating Mutharika by 1 million votes after 18 months of political battle that saw Malawi courts annul the results of the May 2019 election (AC Vol 61 No 13, Narrow gaps and Vol 60 No 11, Mutharika’s narrow win).

Mutharika and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) claimed the elections were rigged but most Malawians celebrated the win by the Tonse Alliance of Chakwera's Malawi Congress Party (MCP), Chilima's United Transformation Movement (UTM), ex-President Joyce Banda's People's Party (PP), her former deputy Khumbo Kachali's Freedom Party and five smaller parties.

Mutharika's gambit of boosting his chances by joining with the United Democratic Front's (UDF) Atupele Muluzi, son of Malawi's president from 1994 to 2004 Bakili Muluzi, did not succeed. Muluzi's vote of 1.9 million in the 2019 election fell to 1.6 million.

To the relief of many, Mutharika has not made any legal challenge to the conduct of the polls, despite claiming his party's agents were chased out of Chakwera's strongholds. Election fatigue was evident in the low turnout of 64%, down from 74% in 2019 and 71% in 2014.

Chakwera offered 'servant leadership' and clean government after years of looting of public finances, the creation of one million jobs within his first year, an increased  public loan scheme from 15m kwacha (US$20,000) to K75m and a fertiliser subsidy programme which lowers the price of a 50-kilogram bag from K20,000 to K4,495.

But he already faces claims he has backed down on a key electoral promise. His provisional budget for the next three months has revealed that 3.5 million farmers will benefit with a limit of two bags each, fewer than expected, and there will be a limit of two bags per farm. There has been disappointment because two bags can only support one acre of a farm for a year. The government says it will move funds from 'non-priority' areas to fund this and other expensive pledges.

President Chakwera tried to soften the blow by telling Malawians that the reduction was merely a start towards a universal subsidy. Many economists doubt if Malawi can afford a huge subsidy programme. Most of the country depends on subsistence farming.

Chakwera has also lifted the income tax threshold from K35,000 ($50) to K100,000 ($140) and has signalled his intention to increase the minimum wage to K50,000 ($70) from K35,000 which will affect unskilled labour for the main cash crop industries, such as tobacco, tea, cotton and sugar, which are the largest employers.

Other key promises include a K75 billion ($100m) loan scheme for small businesses, for which the provisional budget has provided K40bn ($55m) as a start, tax breaks for businesses including a duty-free week, establishment of mega-farms and new airports in Mangochi and Mzuzu, completion of Mombera University in the north and dozens of roads across the country.

The provisional budget is pegged at K722bn ($980m) and the government is expected to borrow K209bn ($285m) to finance it. The economy has slowed and financing options will be limited. Malawi's economy is closely linked to that of its major trading partner, South Africa. Chakwera has promised to be a president 'for all', which will be tested when he starts his anti-corruption drive.

Close allies of Chakwera and Chilima are baying for the blood of Mutharika and DPP officials. The President has already sacked acting Inspector-General of Police, Duncan Mwapasa, seen as a tribal henchman for Mutharika. Chakwera's appointee George Kainja, a Chewa like the President, hail from same district of Lilongwe. The new Finance Minister, Felix Mlusu, is also Chewa.

Going after Mutharika in the manner desired by the UTM is easier said than done. The Tonse Alliance has only 60 MPs against 64 for the DPP/UDF alliance, the rest being independent. Moves to prosecute DPP leaders could result in hold-ups in parliament for the government programme.

The Human Rights Defenders, who led the persistent anti-Mutharika mass protests, have put up public notices inviting evidence of DPP malpractices. They say they want to reclaim what was stolen from the public and they would hand over all information to the Anti-Corruption Bureau. The HRD hopes to stay relevant and retain its influence with the new administration.

Going after graft should involve persisting with the Cashgate corruption prosecutions, which significantly slowed in recent months (AC Vol 57 No 16, Unending flow of Cashgate). One signal of the new president's intent regarding graft could be to allocate more resources to prosecutors.

The biggest political challenge will be to hold the Tonse Alliance together as leaders of the nine-party block expect to be rewarded with important jobs, although the public has been led to expect professional, merit-based public service.

UTM Secretary-General Patricia Kaliati, a veteran political warhorse who was in the cabinets of Bakili Muluzi, Bingu wa Mutharika and Peter Mutharika, is expecting to be appointed, we hear (AC Vol 60 No 5, War of the running mates). Joyce Banda's son Roy Kachale, who is the PP's Vice-President, is also said to believe he is in line for a senior post.

Former Vice-President Khumbo Kachali is said not be seeking a cabinet appointment while those who are eyeing a senior job include Tonse Alliance member-party leaders such as Alliance for Democracy President Enock Chihana, who was in Joyce Banda's cabinet, billionaire businessman and People's Progressive Movement leader Mark Katsonga Phiri, former presidential candidate for Umodzi Party John Chisi and Peoples Transformation Party (Petra) president Kamuzu Chibambo.

The cabinet was expected to be announced as Africa Confidential went to press.

Old vices
Nepotism, tribalism and rewarding mediocre party loyalists were among Mutharika's vices, and Chakwera will be anxious not to be accused of the same.

His first appointments saw Chilima, who had publicly pronounced that he would also serve as finance minister, being given the Economic Planning and Development portfolio instead, which political insiders regard as a snub. Felix Mlusu, who retired after 41 years at an insurance giant, will head the treasury instead.

So far, the Vice-President has not commented. His close aides are awaiting, they told Africa Confidential, a full briefing on what to expect in the new administration.

Meanwhile, the MCP's lead lawyer in the annulled presidential election case, Mordecai Msiska, turned down an offer to become Minister of Justice, saying he had obligations at his law firm and that the ministerial post would have been seen as a reward for his role in the case.

However, Chilima's lawyer Chikosa Silungwe has accepted the post of Attorney General in the new administration, which means he will have to recuse himself as his former firm is claiming K9bn ($12m) in legal fees from the Malawi Electoral Commission, to which his office is the legal advisor.

The new president's allies are mainly religious people and his choice of Farmers Union of Malawi Chief Executive Officer Prince Kapondamgaga as his Chief of Staff reveals his main preference for 'born-again' Pentecostalists, with another advisor, Sean Kampondeni, who is also his son-in-law, another of the key early appointments.

The president's allies say that he likes to consult widely, while others claim he has dictatorial tendencies, surrounding himself with people he can control. They cite the mass firing of MCP officials who disagreed with him in the early years of his party presidency as supporting evidence.

Chakwera will be expected on the one hand to offer unprecedented honesty, and on the other to display 'loyalty'. His home Northern Region, which has been side-lined for years but was crucial to the new president's win, expects much from him.

And then there is Covid-19. Case numbers have spiked, which may necessitate a lockdown, which Mutharika rejected. The new president was expected to announce new restrictions as Africa Confidential went to press.

The 65-year-old Chakwera has promised that at least 40% of all public appointments will be women, and his initial appointments will signal whether he can maintain the popular goodwill he has now or will quickly face the same resistance his predecessor came up against.

Mutharika, meanwhile, is now expected to retire from politics, and is finishing building a sprawling mansion along the lakeshore. He becomes the third president to lose office at the polls after founding President Hastings Banda in 1994 and Joyce Banda in 2014.


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