Malawi's new president sworn in amid clashes between opposition and security forces

By Challis McDonough
Published May 24th 2004 in Voice of Africa (Johannesburg)

Malawi's new president, Bingu wa Mutharika, has been sworn in, despite a second day of clashes between security forces and opposition supporters over his disputed election victory. The unrest has killed at least one person and possibly several more, and there are allegations that police used live ammunition to suppress the demonstrations.

Several African heads of state were present for the swearing-in of Bingu wa Mutharika, who has become Malawi's third president. He was the anointed successor of Bakili Muluzi, who was constitutionally required to step down after two terms in office.

Unrest broke out in townships around Blantyre on Sunday after the Malawi Electoral Commission declared Mr. Mutharika the winner. He took about 35-percent of the votes, while his two closest challengers won 27-percent and 26-percent.

The man who placed third in the official standings, Gwanda Chakuamba of the Mgwirizano Coalition, accuses the electoral commission of fraud and says he should have been declared the winner.

Several political parties, including the Mgwirizano Coalition, have disputed the results and say they intend to challenge them in court.

The head of the University of Malawi political science department, Mustafa Kennedy Hussein, places part of the blame for the opposition anger on an electoral system that allows someone to win the presidency with 35-percent of the vote.

"Personally, I think it is something to do with the electoral system. Because we would be talking about a different scenario if it was proportional representation. But now the voting pattern is along the regional lines, and it is only people who get the majority, even if they beat others by one vote, they still have to be declared the winner," he says.

International election observers have given the poll a mixed evaluation. They say that while voting day was peaceful, there were serious irregularities in voter registration and a heavy bias in the state media toward the ruling party, the United Democratic Front. The European Union also said the ruling party used state resources in its campaign.

Despite the observers' statements, analysts say the opposition probably has little chance of overturning the election in court.

But economists worry that continued unrest and a disputed poll could hurt Malawi's sagging economy and its standing with international lenders.

In his inauguration speech, Mr. Mutharika promised to reform the economy, the government, and the agricultural sector, to make Malawi, what he called, a hunger-free nation.