Malawi’s Joyce Banda, under the cloud of a huge corruption scandal and a donors’ aid freeze, is fighting to hold on to the presidency in an election on May 20th in one of the closest races ever in the tiny southern African state.
Voters will decide whether to stick with former vice president Banda 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 in 2013.
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.
But her opponents charge that she and her supporters have siphoned off public money to fund her campaign and handouts to voters ahead of the May 20th presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections. 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, Peter Mutharika.
“We have never really had elections that are this close, that are really hard to call,” said Boniface Dulani, Afrobarometer coordinator in Malawi.
“Cashgate was very wrong,” Peter Mutharika told AFP. He alleges it was Banda’s government that set up a syndicate to siphon 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. Another strong contender is Lazarus Chakwera, 59, leader of the party of ex-dictator Kamuzu Banda who ran the country as a single party state for more than three decades after independence from Britain in 1964. The fourth top candidate is Atupele Muluzi, 36, the son of retired president Bakili Muluzi.
With little difference in the candidates’ promises to boost the economy, create jobs and offer agricultural subsidies, voting patterns are likely to be split along regional lines.