BLANTYRE, 20 January (IRIN) - President Bakili Muluzi may have considered himself a sure bet to become Malawi's second president for life, but for an increasingly vocal campaign against his proposed third-term of office.
Like his predecessor, former dictator Kamuzu Banda - who declared himself president for life until a referendum in 1993 and later elections in 1994 proved he was less popular than he believed - Muluzi has allegedly built a culture of cronyism around himself.
Banda had ruled for about three decades before his departure, and critics claim Muluzi is keen to repeat that feat.
He enjoys similar praise singing by poor villagers donning the ruling party's yellow colours at political rallies popularly known as "pay centres" - because Muluzi dishes out cash to participants.
"You should see the difference between the ruling party [rallies] and the oppositions [rallies]. I don't just come, I always bring something," Muluzi said at a rally recently in Blantyre, the country's commercial city.
On that occassion he had brought 4,000 school notebooks, 2,000 ballpoint pens, one set of football uniforms, two soccer balls and two bicycles to donate to a run-down over-crowded urban primary school which serves 6,000 pupils.
The gathering in Blantyre's Kabula area was just one of many he held in 2002 around the country to boost his chances of winning a third term. At such gatherings he describes his cash awards as "a token of appreciation" to "veterans" for strengthening the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF).
"All I'm asking for, is just another 23 years," Muluzi said at one of his campaign rallies, noting that he had only ruled for eight years and needed 23 years more to match his predecessor.
For much of last year Muluzi had kept an official silence on whether or not he wanted to stay on in power. But he has recently openly declared his intentions.
He has said: "Who wants to rule a country for only eight years? You don't just change governments the way you change clothes. No, No, No!"
Since January 2002, the ruling party has lobbied members of parliament to amend the constitution to allow Muluzi to prolong his stay in power - the constitution limits the number of five-year terms a president may serve to two.
The third-term debate is set against the background of food shortages that threaten 3.3 million people, low standards of education and a devastating HIV/AIDS pandemic that kills 70,000 people annually. The country's economy in 2001 contracted by 2 percent. About 900,000 pupils out of 1.2 million have dropped out of primary school due to poverty.
At Malawi's biggest referral hospital, the Queen Elizabeth in Blantyre, there has been a significant increase in admissions.
Hospital Director Dr Ibrahim Idana said the hospital, which has 1,050 beds, experienced an admissions increase of up to 50 percent in some wards due to the rising number of malnutrition cases.
"Malnutrition in Malawi is not new. It's a problem that everyone knows about. If you go to any hospital now, there is an increase in child admissions. If you assess the cause of the disease, you find that it is malnutrition," he said.
Many patients returned after having been treated, as "after discharge, there is no food at home", Idana added.
Muluzi's bid for the third term suffered its first set back in early July 2002 when a bill proposing an amendment to the constitution was narrowly defeated.
But Muluzi intensified his campaign, in the face of mounting opposition from the donor community, churches and human rights organisations to his quest for a third term.
He issued a decree banning all demonstrations against or in favour of his bid for a third term.
A university student was shot dead by police during a fracas in Zomba, some 68 km northeast of Blantyre. Two others were killed in Mulanje and 13 members of a pressure group, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), were arrested as political violence heightened late last year.
A second attempt at tabling the bill in October 2002 - after Minister of Justice Henry Phoya proclaimed the government's intention to amend the constitution in a government gazette - failed again due to opposition pressure.
The Human Rights Commission, a government appointed independent body, has reported rising political tensions, increased intimidation and violence orchestrated by the ruling party's militant "Young Democrats".
The International Bar Association (IBA), a United Kingdom-based international lawyers association, also said in a report that there was "damning evidence of corruption and abuse".
"The scale of the poverty, the food shortages, and the AIDS epidemic in Malawi would challenge any society and any government. International support is going to be absolutely critical to get the people of Malawi through this crisis. But to secure this, the government and executive are going to have to take urgent and convincing steps to restore international confidence in the country, attack corruption and uphold the rule of law. Right now, they seem to be heading in the wrong direction," said Linda Dobbs QC of the IBA delegation that visited Malawi last year.
Indeed, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is still withholding US $47 million intended for the country's Poverty Reduction Growth Strategy (PRGS) under the IMF and World Bank Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) programme. Eighty percent of Malawi's development funding is donor-dependent.
Malawi recently experienced floods which killed 10 people and left thousands homeless. Crops and cattle were also destroyed, increasing vulnerability levels in the country.
The country is among the world's 10 poorest, with 65 percent of its people living on less than US $1 per day.
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