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Malawi election: Albino killings, the president’s fake death and five more things

By Chakuchanya Harawa |BBC Africa|

Nearly seven million Malawians will have the chance to vote for a new president on 21 May in one of the most unpredictable elections in the country’s history.

President Peter Mutharika (right) is facing a stiff challenge from Lazarus Chakwera (left) and Saulos Chilima (centre)
President Peter Mutharika (right) is facing a stiff challenge from Lazarus Chakwera (left) and Saulos Chilima (centre)

1. The vice-president is standing against the president

Questions over President Peter Mutharika’s fitness to run for another term have led to a split with his vice-president, Saulos Chilima.

Mr Chilima had been handpicked by Mr Mutharika as his running mate for the last election in 2014. But a year ago, the president’s sister in-law, Callista Mutharika, suggested that the president, aged 78, was too old to seek re-election and that he should make way for his 46-year-old deputy.

That suggestion faced resistance from some influential members of the governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

The party split into two factions and eventually Mr Chilima left to start the UTM party, but remained the country’s vice-president.

It is not clear if Ms Mutharika is on good terms with her brother-in-law – recently she did not attend the unveiling of her late husband Bingu wa Mutharika’s statue. She is running for parliament on behalf of the vice-president’s UTM party.

Mr Chilima is seen as a populist and has been accused of telling people what they want to hear. For example, with unemployment a major issue, he made the contentious promise that he would create one million jobs in his first year of power.

He appears to be the poster boy for those Malawians yearning for change.

Mr Chilima’s relative youthfulness could work to his advantage, as people between the ages of 18 and 34 make up 54% of registered voters.

2. The vice-president’s wife rapped for her husband

Mr Chilima’s wife, Mary, has entered the battle to win over these young voters by becoming a rapper.

In a music video, as well as rapping, she is dancing, using colloquial phrases familiar to young people and is dressed like them.

She has also fronted campaign adverts targeting female voters.

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Who are the candidates?

Seven candidates will be on the ballot paper for the presidential election, but only three have a realistic chance of winning:

  • Peter Mutharika – Democratic Progressive Party – current president running for a second term
  • Lazarus Chakwera – Malawi Congress Party – hoping to revive the fortunes of the former ruling party
  • Saulos Chilima – UTM Party – current vice-president running against his boss
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3. There are no female presidential candidates

Although women make up 56% of registered voters, there are no women among the candidates vying for president.

Women make up more than half of the electorate but the next president will be another man
Women make up more than half of the electorate but the next president will be another man

Former President Joyce Banda, who lost to Mr Mutharika in 2014, withdrew from the race to support Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP).

Parliamentary and local council elections are also happening at the same time and women are in those races. More than 300 women are in the running for a seat in the 153-member national assembly. Hundreds more will be competing in the local government polls.

4. The party of independence is trying to make a comeback

The MCP led the country to independence in 1964 under Hastings Banda. In 1994, after three decades of authoritarian rule, he lost the country’s first multi-party election since the party came to power.

It has undergone a revival in recent years and now the MCP is a serious challenger.

It has shrugged off its damaged reputation and this election is being seen as the party’s best chance of returning to power after 25 years out of state house.

Its candidate is Lazarus Chakwera, who took his first run at the presidency in 2014 when he came second with 28% of the vote.

Region can be a potent factor in Malawian politics and the MCP has a loyal base in the centre of the country. By choosing a running mate from the south, considered a stronghold of the ruling party, Mr Chakwera hopes to get votes from the DPP.

His bid for state house got a major boost with the endorsement of Mrs Banda and her Peoples Party. He has also been backed by the Freedom Party of former Vice-President Khumbo Kachali.

5. President denies rumours of his death

Just over a week before voting day, rumours started circulating that President Mutharika was either seriously ill or had died. These were stoked by a press release from his office saying he was cancelling campaign rallies in order “to attend to other urgent matters”.

A picture of a South African air ambulance, apparently on the runway at the country’s main airport, started circulating on social media, which heightened the speculation.

Map of Malawi

But Mr Mutharika reappeared on the campaign trail two days later, and mocked the opposition. He said that rather than him dying, it was the opposition leaders who will suffer a political death come the vote.

“Does this look like a dead man to you?” he asked his supporters.

Notwithstanding this, campaigning has been relatively drama free, but there have been accusations and counter-accusations of electoral fraud, mainly between Mr Mutharika and Mr Chilima.

There have been a few incidents of violence but generally campaigning has been peaceful.

There is no second round in Malawi’s presidential election – the candidate with the most votes is declared the winner.

In the last election, Mr Mutharika won with 36.4% of the vote and analysts say he could once more benefit from the divided opposition.

6. Accusations of corruption

Corruption has become a major issue in this election and it could cost Mr Mutharika the presidency.

The opposition argues that high-level corruption has worsened since he became president five years ago. Mr Mutharika himself got sucked into an alleged bribery scandal but he was cleared by the country’s anti-corruption watchdog.

Nearly $4m (£3.1m) from a businessman embroiled in a contract controversy with the Malawi police found its way into a DPP bank account to which the president is the sole signatory.

Mr Mutharika always denied any wrongdoing and returned the money.

Agriculture is the mainstay of Malawi’s economy and the government has introduced a farm-input subsidy programme to help poor farmers but the opposition parties say it has been fraught with corruption, costly, poorly managed and does not benefit the intended recipients.

They say that, if elected, they would discontinue the programme and replace it with a universal subsidy system.

7. Murder of people with albinism

Another issue that has dominated the campaigns is a spate of attacks on people with albinism ahead of the vote.

There is anxiety in presidential circles that the issue could damage the DPP’s chances.

A UN report suggested that attacks and killings of people with albinism increase during election periods “because of false beliefs that their body parts can bring good luck and political power when used in witchcraft related rituals”.

Recently, a key suspect in the abduction of a person with albinism died while in police custody.

An independent forensic autopsy revealed he had been electrocuted, raising fears among some Malawians that powerful people could be behind the attacks.

Opposition parties accuse the Mutharika administration of not doing enough to stop the attacks.

The president disputes this and appointed a commission of inquiry to investigate the killings.

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