Malawi clerics urge ex-ruler Muluzi withdraw from poll
By Mabvuto Banda
LILONGWE, Feb 18 (Reuters) - Former Malawi President Bakili Muluzi should withdraw from next year's presidential election in the interests of democracy, an influential group of Christian and Muslim clerics in the African nation said on Monday.
Muluzi, who stepped down in 2004 after unsuccessfully trying to change the constitution and run for a third consecutive term, announced last year he would challenge incumbent President Bingu wa Mutharika on behalf of the United Democratic Front party.
"Muluzi had his time and we ask him to withdraw his intentions to contest again in next year's elections," Rev. Boniface Tamani, head of the Public Affairs Committee (PAC) clerical lobby, said in a statement.
"His intentions may undermine the achievements that the country has made so far and destroy the confidence with the country's donors," Tamani said.
Clerics have played an important political role in Malawi. Calls by Christian leaders for the government to respect democracy and human rights helped pave the way for the 1994 departure of longtime strongman Hastings Kamuzu Banda.
But Kennedy Makwangwala, the UDF's secretary-general, dismissed the clerics' request. "UDF supporters are the ones that want Muluzi and not the churches," he told Reuters.
Muluzi was hailed as a hero in Malawi, one of the world's poorest nations, for ousting Banda, a victory that appeared to mark the end of authoritarian rule in the country of 13 million people.
But a decade later he was defeated in an unsuccessful bid for an unconstitutional third, five-year term amid growing tensions with Western donors who account for a large chunk of the country's finances.
Relations between Muluzi and wa Mutharika, his successor, have deteriorated since the incumbent launched an anti-corruption drive that netted a number of Muluzi's allies. Muluzi was briefly arrested in 2006 in the crackdown.
It is not clear whether the former Malawi leader will be free to run again under the Constitution, which limits the president to two terms but says nothing about whether the restriction applies to former rulers.
Malawi's Constitutional Court is expected to rule on the matter. Muluzi and his supporters in the UDF have said they believe that the constitutional limit applies to consecutive presidential terms.
Wa Mutharika, who quit the UDF after winning the 2004 poll and formed the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), is likely to stress his government's economic achievements in his re-election bid. Inflation and interest rates have fallen and harvests have been generally good under his rule.
Muluzi says prosperity has not trickled down to many Malawians.
UDF loyalists in parliament have made several attempts to impeach wa Mutharika, while police have accused UDF figures of plotting to have the president assassinated. The DPP has a minority of the seats in Malawi's parliament. (Editing by Paul Simao and Giles Elgood)