Banda in tough race to remain Malawi's leader

Malawian president's election campaign overshadowed by scandal involving the disappearance of $30m from the treasury.

    Joyce Banda, Malawi's president, is fighting to hold on to the presidency in what has been billed a tough electoral contest in the tiny southern African state.

    Voters decide on Tuesday whether to stick with Banda, a former vice president who came to power after the death in office of president Bingu wa Mutharika two years ago.

    Her bid to be elected president in her own right is overshadowed by a scandal involving the disappearance of $30m from the national coffers that rocked the dirt-poor country last year, the AFP news agency reported.

    Banda, who had launched an anti-graft crusade, ordered the audit that revealed the theft - known as Cashgate - and charges have been brought against 68 ministers, civil servants and business people.

    Banda denies any personal involvement in the scandal, saying in fact Cashgate is her trump card and will not damage her performance at the polls.

    "In fact that's my greatest achievement," she told reporters before her final campaign rally, adding that the graft had been going on before she came into office.

    Graft accusations

    But her opponents charge that she and her supporters have syphoned off public money to fund her campaign and handouts to voters ahead of the May 20 presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections.

    Donor nations, which finance a large chunk of Malawi's budget, have pulled the plug on $150m in vital aid over the scandal.

    It has also led to a heated presidential race that an Afrobarometer survey shows is too close to call. Although there are 12 hopefuls, the real contest is between Banda and three other candidates, including her predecessor's brother.

    "We have never really had elections that are this close, that are really hard to call," said Boniface Dulani, Afrobarometer coordinator in Malawi.

    Malawi's 64-year-old first woman leader could also face a backlash from voters over her efforts to reform the economy, which had earlier won international plaudits.

    A campaign ad on state television MBC shows an old clip of IMF chief Christine Lagarde praising Banda as a mature leader fit to rule Malawi.

    Currency devaluation

    But her austerity reforms included a sharp devaluation of the kwacha currency which hit the poor hard in a country where nearly half of the 15 million citizens live on less than a dollar a day.

    "A lot of economic measures that she has taken, that have been lauded by the international community in many respects, have eroded her domestic support," said researcher Aditi Lalbahadur of the South African Institute of International Affairs.

    Blantyre voter Nickson Simango agreed. "We don't want Banda to rule this country again, things will only get worse," he said.

    And of course Cashgate has given ammunition to Banda's rivals. They accuse her of abusing state resources for her campaign and of vote buying by doling out motorcycles and bags of the staple maize meal.

    "Cashgate was very wrong," Peter Mutharika, one of her strongest challengers, told AFP. He alleges it was Banda's government that set up a syndicate to syphon the money from the treasury to her election coffers.

    Mutharika, 74, is promising voters to return Malawi to "functionality" by continuing the work of his older brother, the deceased ex-president.

    Detractors accuse Mutharika of being power hungry, claiming he tried to hide news of his brother's death in 2012 by flying his body around Africa in bid to prevent Banda from coming to power and to stage a constitutional coup.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera And AFP


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