Thursday, May 21, 2009

Confusion over Malawi vote count

One of Malawi's opposition leaders has accepted that President Bingu wa Mutharika won Tuesday's elections but another has claimed widespread rigging.

Ex-President Bakili Muluzi has telephoned Mr Mutharika, with whom he has fought a bitter feud in recent years, to offer his congratulations.

But Mr Muluzi's ally and main opposition presidential candidate John Tembo claims there was election fraud.

With 40% of votes counted, Mr Mutharika has a huge lead, official results show.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) leader, a 75-year-old former World Bank official, has 1.3m votes against 0.5m for Mr Tembo.

Final official results are expected on Thursday night, a day before the winner of the presidential vote is due to be inaugurated.

In the parliamentary vote, Mr Mutharika's party also has a clear lead, with nearly half the ballots counted.

With 193 seats up for grabs, partial official results have the DPP winning 59; Mr Tembo's Malawi Congress Party (MCP) 17; Mr Muluzi's United Democratic Front (UDF) 10; and the Malawi Forum for Unity and Development just one. Eleven seats have gone to independents.

Mr Muluzi was barred last Saturday from seeking a third term and his UDF instead backed Mr Tembo.

Mr Muluzi told Malawian media: "As a former president of this country, I'm saying: 'Let's move forward.'

"I telephoned him [Mr Mutharika] this morning, we had a conversation and I conveyed my congratulations to him for the victory and wished him well and his DPP party."

Media bias

But Mr Tembo, 77, struck a very different note, describing the results as "very unusual".

He told a press conference: "If the population of a country is 50 million and the results indicate that 54 million have voted, you would consider them [results] extraordinary wouldn't you?

"I just wanted to indicate that, so when you get to know the full extent of my complaint it must be on the basis of what I'm telling you - that the results are absolutely unbelievable."

On Wednesday, the MCP disputed results in its traditional stronghold of Central Province, saying its poll agents had been denied access to counting centres in the area.

International poll observers said the president had enjoyed an unfair advantage, including a partisan state media.

EU observer group head Luisa Morgantini said the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation and Television Malawi had failed to provide balanced coverage of the campaign.

Former Ghanaian President John Kufuor, leader of the Commonwealth observer team, said: "We are extremely concerned at the conduct of state-owned media in its coverage of these elections."

The election followed a five-year feud between Mr Mutharika and his predecessor Mr Muluzi that brought a failed impeachment bid, parliamentary deadlock and coup plot claims.

Mr Mutharika was elected on a UDF ticket in 2004 but he then fell out with Mr Muluzi, accusing his one-time backer of trying to stonewall an anti-corruption drive.

The president quit his rival's party in 2005 to form the DPP and lead a minority government.

Poverty, agriculture and health care are the big issues for Malawi, where two-thirds of the 13 million population lives on less than $1 a day and Aids has orphaned an estimated one million children.