Poverty, corruption and fake news to the fore as Malawi gears up for elections

Many Malawians feel President Peter Mutharika has not met his promises on infrastructure, tackling poverty and education

 A woman and children harvesting  groundnuts in Malawi. More than 50%  of the country’s  18 million people live below the poverty line, making it the fourth poorest country in the world. Photograph: Getty Images

A woman and children harvesting groundnuts in Malawi. More than 50% of the country’s 18 million people live below the poverty line, making it the fourth poorest country in the world. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Corruption, poverty and the economy are at the forefront of citizens’ minds ahead of Malawi’s “three-horse race” elections set to take place next week.

Tuesday’s vote for the presidency, parliament and local councils will be the fifth elections since the country returned to a multiparty democracy in 1994.

President Peter Mutharika, of the Democratic Progressive Party, has been in power since 2014. Many Malawians feel he has not met his campaign promises, especially to improve infrastructure, reduce poverty levels and make education more accessible to children.

Opposing him is his vice-president Saulos Chilima, representing the United Transformation Movement, and former pastor Lazarus Chakwera, of the Malawi Congress Party.

“There is very stiff competition,” said January Watchman Mvula, an aid worker in southern Malawi. “The current president is in a panic.”

Mr Mvula said Mr Mutharika had unusually been campaigning at night. It was “a strange and funny thing for the president to travel by road at such a late hour”.

A lawyer and former lecturer in the US, Mr Mutharika (78) won his position following Malawi’s “Cashgate” scandal in which $32 million of government money was stolen over just six months. He vowed to stamp out corruption, but Malawians told The Irish Times his rule had been disappointing.

“People are really into this year’s elections. They really care,” said Pempho Nyirenda (27), a finance worker from Mzimba in northern Malawi. “The most contentious issues are corruption, unemployment, the economy as a whole... agriculture. Oh, and healthcare. Most hospitals still lack resources. Especially government-run facilities.”

Basic amenities

Sarah Munthali, a journalist for the Malawi News Agency in Mchinji, central Malawi, said the election results would be be most critical for the poor, “especially in families where most people don’t have basic amenities such as food, clothes, water or money to send their children to school”.

More than 50 per cent of Malawi’s 18 million people live below the poverty line, making it the fourth poorest country in the world.

Ms Munthali said citizens in rural areas were very politically engaged, and politicians have held regular meetings across the country over the campaigning period, but corruption threatened to undermine the result. “Contestants, mostly those standing as MPs and local councillors, give voters money, maize and other things so [they will] vote for them.”

False news has also been problematic. This week Mr Mutharika spoke out against rumours he had died, which spread after he unexpectedly cancelled a campaign event. “I am a very strong man,” he told attendees at a rally.

“Not many people are on social media here, but the few people who have access [to it] spread the fake news to those who care to listen,” said Ms Munthali. “On polling day I know there will be fake news spreading around.”

Cyclone Idai

Malawi, a landlocked country in Africa’s southeast, was hit by Cyclone Idai earlier this year, and the resulting floods displaced almost 90,000 people.

Mr Mvula, who is the director of local aid organisation Surcod, in southern Malawi, said those victims must also be prioritised by the incoming government.

“Many parties put forward good promises to the displaced, but I am not sure if they will keep their promises.”