May 16, 2019 / 3:18 PM / 2 months ago

Malawi president faces tough election against deputy, former pastor

BLANTYRE, Malawi (Reuters) - Malawi’s President Peter Mutharika is in for a stern test at next week’s elections, challenged by a field of candidates including his deputy - a onetime ally turned rival - and a former pastor who accuses him of corruption.

Former law professor Mutharika, 78, is trying to secure a second five-year presidential term on Tuesday, when Malawians will also vote for a new parliament and local government councillors.

The southern African country is heavily dependent on foreign aid and has suffered frequent severe droughts in the last decade that have affected hundreds of thousands of people. Mutharika is credited with improving infrastructure and lowering inflation.

But he was dealt a blow last year when Deputy President Saulos Chilima quit the governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to form a new party, the United Transformation Movement (UTM).

Chilima, a 46-year-old former telecoms executive, has gambled his political future on winning the presidency, said Boniface Dulani from the University of Malawi.

“If Chilima loses that might signal the end of his political career; win, and he gets a platform to see if the successes he had in the private sector can be replicated in government,” Dulani said.

A major issue at these elections will be corruption, following a series of high-profile scandals in the past decade.

Chilima and Lazarus Chakwera, a former pastor who is also running for president and who leads the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), say Mutharika has nurtured graft.

Mutharika denies that. He says local media reports he benefited from a $4 million contract to supply food to the police force are a ploy to smear him before the elections.

“People don’t eat politics. But they need development, which is what I have delivered and will continue to do,” Mutharika said at the opening of a new road on Wednesday.

But Chilima says it’s time for a change.

Chakwera, 64, says he would rid government of cronyism if elected. “Our first objective is to rid the public service of corruption,” he said at a recent rally.

YOUNG VOTERS

Mutharika is likely to draw support from rural areas, where his government’s agricultural subsidies and electrification programmes tend to win votes, analysts say.

Those subsidies have helped boost harvests of maize, the country’s staple grain. Some economists also say the president has ushered in a period of relative economic stability, with lower interest rates and higher foreign currency reserves in the country of around 19 million people.

But a problem for Mutharika could come from younger voters, who make up more than half of Malawi’s 6.8 million registered voters at these elections.

Chilima has tried to tap into the youth vote with a social media campaign featuring hip-hop videos. His UTM party has promised to create 1 million jobs for young people if it wins.

The MCP, the largest opposition party in the current parliament, has increased its support in Malawi’s most populous southern province, which could boost Chakwera’s chances.

The official opposition, which governed Malawi from independence until 1994, has also formed an electoral alliance with former president Joyce Banda’s People’s Party.

Another contender in the presidential vote will be Atupele Muluzi, health minister in Mutharika’s cabinet who leads the United Democratic Front party.

Editing by Alexander Winning and Frances Kerry

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