Preparations for the general election in Malawi on 20 May have been more organised and transparent than in previous years, due in part to the current leadership of the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC). The commission has taken on the state broadcaster, MBC, encouraging it to open up to opposition candidates and their advertisements. It has co-sponsored public debates involving candidates and regularly sent press briefings on electoral procedures. In the prevailing climate of mistrust, it is vital for the MEC to reassure candidates and voters that the presidential, national assembly and local council elections will be free and fair, and that the new government will be legitimately elected. The distrust dates back to the unexpected death of President Bingu wa Mutharika in April 2012. It began with vice-president Joyce Banda’s ascension to power, when the president’s brother, Peter Mutharika, and his Democratic Progressive party colleagues tried to halt the legal succession. Peter Mutharika is now a presidential candidate, and many voters believe his campaign is funded by wealth his brother accumulated during his period in office. His trial, along with those of the other 11 “coup-plotters”, is on hold.
Peter Mutharika, brother of Malawi’s late president, Bingu wa Mutharika, is among the leading presidential candidates Banda took office with virtually no formal support in parliament, but that changed when dozens of MPs illegally crossed the floor and joined her People’s party. Among them was Atupele Muluzi, son of former president Bakili Muluzi, who stayed in cabinet only a few weeks before returning to his father’s United Democratic Front party. Atupele Muluzi is also running, and fighting to quash rumours that he has benefited from his father’s alleged corruption (£7m in donor funds) when in office. The elder Muluzi’s trial is ongoing.
Of the dozen presidential candidates, the only other real contender is Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress party. But the party’s past during the Hastings Banda regime (1963-94) remains a contentious issue among some – especially older – voters and civil society activists.