Meet the candidates in Malawi’s unsettled presidential race

Malawi goes to the polls on Tuesday in a presidential race that could test President Peter Mutharika’s grip on power. These are the leading contenders amongst the Malawi presidential candidates:

The elderly president

President Peter Mutharika, 78, won the 2014 election – two years after his older brother Bingu Wa Mutharika died after having a heart attack while in office. His term has been dominated by food shortages, power outages and ballooning external debt, which have damaged his popularity, as well as concerns about his health.

Malawi’s President Peter Mutharika arrives for his final elections campaign rally at Mjamba Park in the commercial city of Blantyre, on May 18, 2019, ahead of the Tuesday, May 21, 2019, Tripartite Elections.

A former professor of law at Washington University, Mutharika is a constitutional expert who served as a minister of justice, for education, science and technology, and as minister of foreign affairs. He came to power on a promise to tackle corruption after the “Cashgate” scandal erupted in 2013, revealing massive looting from state coffers by government officials, ruling party figures and businessmen.

But he has also been tainted by graft allegations, and last year a public outcry of over $200,000 that he had allegedly received from a businessman who was under investigation for a multi-million-dollar deal to supply food to the police. As the leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Mutharika has a mixed economic record since 2014. Growth has slowed from 5.7 percent to four percent but inflation has fallen sharply from 23 percent to below nine percent, according to IMF figures.

“You can see the developments that I have done across the country with your own eyes. Let the work of my hands bear witness for me,” he said on the campaign trail as he opened a new road.

The rebel deputy

Saulos Chilima was Mutharika’s running mate in 2014 and became vice-president – but he then fell out with his boss. Chilima, a youthful 46-year-old, quit the ruling DPP last year and set up the United Transformation Movement (UTM) to contest the election.

Malawian Vice President and United Transformation Movement presidential candidate Saulos Chilima addresses a crowd of supporters during the last campaign rally on May 18, 2019, in Lilongwe, ahead of general elections.

A devout Catholic, he has been a bitter critic of alleged corruption, nepotism, and cronyism in the ruling party. Prior to being hand-picked by Mutharika, Chilima was a high-earning senior executive in multinational companies including Unilever, Coca-Cola, and Airtel.

He has run a colourful and energetic youth-targeted campaign on a platform of eradicating poverty, fighting graft and creating employment. But it is uncertain if his new party can make a major impact. His wife Mary made waves ahead of the election, releasing a slick and much-admired rap video extolling her husband’s candidacy.

The opposition leader

Former evangelist Lazarus Chakwera, 64, leads Malawi’s oldest party, the Malawi Congress Party, which is the main opposition party and ruled Malawi from 1964 to 1994 under Hastings Banda’s one-party rule.

Chakwera led the party into the 2014 elections, coming second to Mutharika at the polls and he now hopes to go one better. The Malawi Congress Party has lost all five presidential elections since 1994 but Chakwera has made great efforts to re-energise its base.

Opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP) leader and presidential candidate Lazarus Chakwera (L) waves to the crowd as he arrives at the last campaign rally on May 18, 2019, in Lilongwe, ahead of general elections.

Prior to becoming the leader of the party, Chakwera was president of the Malawi Assemblies of God from 1989 to 2013. He was born to a subsistence farmer whose two older sons died in infancy. He was named Lazarus after the biblical character who was raised from the dead. In March, Chakwera secured the high-profile support of former president Joyce Banda, formerly of the ruling DPP.

Banda came to power in 2012 following the death of Bingu wa Mutharika, but she fled the country after losing the 2014 election amid graft allegations that have never led to charges. She returned last year.

The young outsider

Atupele Muluzi, 41, is the leader of the United Democratic Front and the son of Bakili Muluzi who governed the country from 1994 until 2004. After his party came fourth in the 2014 elections, Muluzi allied himself with the ruling DPP and is currently health minister.

Malawi’s United Democratic Front (UDF) party President Atupele Muluzi speaks during a press conference

He has drawn large crowds to his rallies, but his alliance with the government may have cost him votes.


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