Joyce Banda is seeking re-election as president of Malawi. The former model politician is under pressure because of a corruption scandal and the enormous poverty in the country.
When Malawi votes for a new president on Tuesday (20.05.2014), things could become tight for Joyce Banda. A corruption scandal, weak economic growth and enormous poverty: whether Banda will remain president is unclear.
After Banda came to power in 2012, things were very different. "If Malawians would have voted maybe six months after Joyce Banda became the president, she would have won by a landslide," says political scientist Jimmy Kainja from the University of Malawi. The former vice president came to power after her predecessor Bingu wa Mutharika died of a heart attack. Mutharika's rule had become increasingly autocratic. He intimidated media critics and had the police fire on demonstrators. People pinned their hopes on Banda. There was much enthusiasm abroad about the supposed iron lady, and Malawians were happy.
Plenty of pledges, little substance
The "Süddeutsche Zeitung," a German daily newspaper, praised Banda, calling her "determined." Initially, she did all the right things: She fired the police chief responsible for suppressing a demonstration, which left more than 19 people dead. She revived relations with Western donor countries and promised to sell the expensive government plane.
But Banda seldom went beyond promises and announcements, and civil society groups were soon fed up. "The president must understand that she is the head of state and represents wishes of Malawians," the chairman of Malawi Watch, Billy Banda, told DW in February.
No relentless anti-graft crusader
"Cashgate" is the name of the scandal that makes many Malawians resentful toward Banda. The scandal came to light in September 2013, after lengthy investigations. Corrupt officials had stolen $30 million (21.9 million euros) from state coffers in only six months. The president, however, did not assert herself as a relentless anti-corruption crusader. Instead, she initially played down the affair.
One month later Banda finally took action – and sacked her cabinet. The finance minister had to go. "It was the most effective thing she could do, but everybody knew that she did it reluctantly. She did not want to do it," political scientist Jimmy Kainja said in a DW interview. Instead, many Malawians presume that she was acting under pressure from the donor countries.
No confidence abroad
It is not only the opposition and civil society that have lost confidence in Joyce Banda: the international community is also reserved. In April the German government announced that it would continue to freeze budgetary support for Malawi. Since 2011, no German aid has gone to direct budget support. "Given the deficit in public financial management in Malawi, Germany does not see a perspective to disburse general budget support in the near future," the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) said in a written statement to DW.
In Malawi and abroad, Joyce Banda did not cut a good figure with the sale of the government plane either. Publicly, she promised to buy food for poor citizens with the proceeds from the sale. Later her finance minister admitted that the government had used the money to pay off old debts arising from arms deals.
Little success in fighting poverty
Her economic policy record hardly looks any better. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. On the United Nations development index, it ranks 170th out of a total of 187 countries. Famines have recurred again and again.
"Poverty levels are very dirty and painful, but this nation is very rich and the rich resources of this nation are not used for development," opposition candidate Helen Singh charged in a televised debate ahead of the elections.
Banda's commitment so far has been limited to the continuation of the controversial agricultural program started by her predecessor. The program enables farmers to buy fertilizer and other agricultural resources at low prices. Experts like Olivier De Schutter, the UN special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, say the program is expensive and ineffective, pointing out that there were other ways to make soil more fertile.
In a move that was unpopular with many Malawians, Banda devalued the national currency, the kwacha, by almost 34 percent. The result was that the prices for many goods shot up; many Malawians got into financial difficulties. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank had also advised her predecessor to take this step, but Bingu wa Mutharika declined to do it.
Despite her mixed record, Banda is ranked as a favorite in the presidential election. The opposition is fragmented. Eleven candidates are trying to unseat Banda. Since a simple majority suffices to win, the odds are said to be in Banda's favor in what is expected to be a very close race.