April 09, 2012
New President in Malawi!
Posted by Christine Hurt

While most folks in the U.S. probably had a relatively relaxed weekend, perhaps a holiday weekend for some, the past four or five days have been fairly expectant (ok, tense) in Malawi. The conclusion to the story is that today Malawi has a new President, Joyce Banda.

Thursday morning, the then-President Bingu wa Mutharika, collapsed of cardiac arrest.  For a day or so, no official would confirm his death, though it was widely rumored.  Some officials claimed he had been flown to South Africa for emergency treatment (a two-hour jet plane flight) while others claimed he was perfectly fine.  Finally, the government confirmed that Mutharika, 78, had passed away.  On Saturday afternoon, the Vice-President, Joyce Banda, was sworn in as President.

But that bland description does not capture the uncertainty of the past few days and of the future.  Following Thursday's news of Mutharika's possible death, tensions were very high over who would be the next President.  Under the Malawi Constitution, should the President become incapacitated or die, the office of President, until the next election, falls to the Vice-President.  However, two possible problems could have arisen.  First, it was not completely clear whether the rule of law would prevail.  Malawi is a young democracy, and the past year had seen a reversal in respect of some principal democractic concepts, if not the rule of law.  Banda, as I will explain further in a moment, was in opposition to Mutharika, and quite recently opposition leaders had been arrested.  So, a peaceful transition of power could not be completely assumed.

Second, members of Mutharika's party, the Democratic Progressive Party (remember that joke about the Holy Roman Empire not being Holy, nor Roman, etc.?), had claimed that Banda was not legally the V-P.  Though Banda and Mutharika had run as members of the DPP, Mutharika had later expelled Banda from the party because of her "anti-party" activities.  Banda then organized her own party, the People's Party, and was going to run for President in 2014.  (Mutharika was constitutionally banned from running because of term limits, but his brother, Peter, would have been the party nominee.).  However, she could not be fired as V-P, though her duties were reassigned.  So, supporters braced for a court battle over whether Banda was the legal V-P and would legally be the successor.

So far, things look cautiously optimistic.  But Banda inherits more problems than we can even fathom.  Almost a year ago, Mutharika expelled the British ambassador from the country, prompting the U.K. to withhold aid from the country.  That aid constituted 40% of the budget of the government of Malawi, so this cut in aid, which had ripple effects throughout the aid community, threw an already incredibly impoverished country in to severe economic crisis.  Last week, the country's currency, the kwacha, was trading on the black market at almost twice its official rate.  The IMF had called upon Malawi repeatedly to devalue the kwacha, but the government refused.  Severe shortages of fuel and other commodities are everyday occurrences.  (If you can find petrol, it's at least $10/liter.)  A ten-day mourning period has been announced for the late President, but then a lot of hard work will need to be done.

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