"It's shameful that the UDF party wants to take us back to the dark days,"

Mr Gwanda Chakuamba (2003)

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Monday, June 09, 2008

Budget crisis threatens farm spending

BLANTYRE, 9 June 2008 (IRIN) - Another year, another budget crisis in Malawi, with the opposition once again flexing its muscles by threatening to block the passing of the treasury vote.

It is the fourth consecutive year the tactic has been used. At risk once more are government spending programmes, including its subsidised fertiliser scheme, intended to shore up production by small-scale farmers.

President Bingu wa Mutharika has given legislators until 20 June, the end of the financial year, to pass the budget. "If they don't, I will continue governing up to next year [the date for general elections]," he told a public rally in the commercial capital, Blantyre, on Saturday.

Billy Banda, executive director of Malawi Watch, a human rights advocacy group, has warned that any postponement in passing the budget would delay the government's purchase of inputs needed by farmers before the start of the planting season.

"Rejecting the budget means rejecting innocent people who have nothing to do with party politics. All they are waiting for is to be ensured of a cheap bag of fertiliser. Malawians must wake up and tell these politicians off if we are to produce [a surplus]," he remarked.

Malawi's agriculture has turned a corner since 2005, when drought left close to five million people in need of food aid. Last year Malawi managed to produce a maize surplus of over 1 million tonnes. Several analysts point to cheap fertiliser as key to that success, and this year finance minister Goodall Gondwe wants to spend US$8 million on the subsidy programme.

Budget brinkmanship dates to 2005 when Mutharika dumped his political sponsor, the then ruling United Democratic Front (UDF), to form his own Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) after winning general elections earlier that year.

With the support of 60 former UDF colleagues who crossed the floor contravening Section 65 of the constitution, Mutharika formed a minority government pledging to root out corruption. The annual blocking of the budget has been the opposition's revenge.

The UDF and Malawi Congress Party insist that the renegade MPs need a fresh mandate to be seated; the DPP argues that holding 60 by-elections would be a waste of money with national polls around the corner.
Bakili Muluzi, UDF national chairman and former president of Malawi, has accused the government of ignoring the constitution. Muluzi, under house arrest on treason charges since last month, has urged MPs not to give into government intimidation. Several retired and serving army and police officers have also been arrested this year and released on bail.

Appeals to reason

Church leaders, led by Roman Catholic Archbishop Tarcizious Ziyaye, are mediating between the government and the opposition, but their efforts have not generated much optimism in the media: 'Mediation meet stalls', 'Opposition, govt stick to their guns' and 'Clergy want house to adjourn' have been some of the recent headlines.

Andrew Kumbatira, head of the civil society Malawi Economic Justice Network, said media speculation was only worsening the climate. "It is wrong to start predicting that the MPs will not pass the budget because that is not the picture at hand ... I am so optimistic this budget will be approved much easier than was the case last year."

According to Undule Mwakasungura, executive director of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, a political solution must be found involving party leaders, "because they literally tell MPs what to do once they are in the National Assembly - all this at the expense of the poor."

The budget logjam could also impact on the 2009 elections, which Muluzi - who in 1994 became Malawi's first democratically elected president, but has been forced to fight corruption allegations - intends to contest.

"Elections can only be free and fair if preparations are done in ample time. For instance, there will need to be civic education throughout Malawi and that cannot be done in just a few weeks. It will need months," said Malawi Watch's Banda.

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