Monday, May 18, 2009

MALAWI: Poverty Uppermost in Voters' Minds



by Pilirani Semu-Banda

When Malawians go to vote on May 19, they are expected to put their cross next to the party they believe will do most to reduce poverty. Political campaigns in the run-up to the presidential and parliamentary elections have centred around poverty, agriculture, food security and employment.

Margret Kalibu lives on the outskirts of Malawi’s capital Lilongwe. Her husband died last year, leaving her with seven children the ages of two and 15. With one less income, the family survives on only one meal a day, mainly porridge.

Kalibu says her husband died of malaria because he could not access treatment – they did not have the money for him to travel to the nearest public hospital, located 25 kilometres from his home.

As Kalibu goes to vote this week, she says she will choose a president and a member of parliament who will make sure to improve the economic and social well-being of her family.

"I want a president and an MP who has the poor people’s interest at heart. I want my family to have access to food, clothing, good health facilities and proper housing. I want my children to have access to proper education," said Kalibu.

Most Malawians going to the polls will cast their votes based on similar considerations, reckons the Malawi Economic Justice Network (MEJN), a coalition of 100 civil society organisations, community-based organisations, media, trade unions and academia.

Basic needs, such as food and employment, are key issues in Malawi. Up to 65 percent of the country’s 13.1 million people are living below the poverty line of less than one dollar per day.

MEJN executive director Andrew Kumbatira says many Malawians will vote for political parties that campaign for poverty reduction, improved health care, increased infrastructure and better education standards.

Agriculture is another important issue that will determine people’s choice in the elections, Kumbatira says. Eighty-five percent of Malawians rely on agriculture for their livelihoods, and the agricultural industry generates up to 70 percent of the country’s foreign exchange earnings.

"During their campaigns, the front-runners in the presidential election have been talking about the importance of boosting agricultural productivity. Most people will take the issue of food security seriously when they enter the polling booth to vote," said Kumbatira.

Various opinion polls have indicated as front-runners current president Bingu wa Mutharika, in direct competition with John Tembo, leader of the country’s oldest political grouping, Malawi Congress Party (MCP), who has formed a coalition with the United Democratic Front (UDF), led by the country’s former president, Bakili Muluzi.

The presidential election is being contested by five other candidates: Loveness Gondwe of the National Rainbow Coalition, who is the country’s first female presidential candidate, Alliance for Democracy’s Dindi Gowa Nyasulu, Stanley Masauli of the Republican Party, independent presidential candidate James Nyondo and Kamuzu Chibambo of People's Transformation Party.

The leading political parties are well aware of the need to fight poverty and hunger and improve basic services, such as health and education. During election campaigns in the past few weeks, the MCP, for example, has promised to introduce a universal agricultural subsidy programme, while the DPP has pledged to strengthen an existing subsidy for resource-poor smallholder farmers.

In its manifesto, the MCP says it will support the people of Malawi to feed themselves, clothe themselves, live healthily, lead productive lives and live in decent houses by scrapping taxes on domestic housing materials.

The MCP also promises to overhaul the health system, which is currently seen as a failure, and re-establish professionalism, efficiency and integrity in the civil service. "I want the lives of the people, particularly the poor ones in the villages, to improve," MCP’s Tembo says.

The DPP, on the other hand, claims it has successfully implemented developmental polices in the five years it has been in power and suggests people should vote for the ruling party if they want continued development.

The DPP has also pledged to invest heavily in education by providing more funding to schools and colleges and to be more committed to raising educational standards.

However, political experts are afraid election manifestos may remain lip service. Most campaign promises made by the different parties have been vague, and politicians have refrained from detailing what policies and programmes they will implement to improve service delivery.

"People will be voting while groping in the dark. No party has managed to articulate properly how they will execute their promises and this might encourage people to vote on ethnic lines," said Blessings Chinsinga, political analyst at the University of Malawi.

While agreeing that most Malawians will vote for candidates who promise to tackle poverty, hunger and unemployment, Chinsinga said ethnicity is likely play a role in the elections.

"In the past, we have seen Malawians vote on regional as well as ethnic grounds. They either voted for a president who comes from their area or for a president who they think sympathises with their tribe," he explained.

Christopher Gondwe, a registered voter from Mzuzu in northern Malawi, confirmed Chinsinga’s theory when telling IPS he will vote for a president who is interested in developing the whole country without segregation.

"The north, for example, has been marginalised for a long time. We want a president who will not only develop the two other regions but the north as well," said Gondwe.

Gondwe is unlikely to put his cross next to the name of Malawi’s current president Mutharika who belongs to the Lhomwe tribe of southern Malawi. Mutharika has been repeatedly accused by analysts and politicians, including his main contender Tembo, of giving preference to people from his tribe when appointing cabinet ministers and parastatal organisations.

(END/2009)

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