Malawi's new president sworn in after disputed elections

By Drum Digital
31 May 2014

Peter Mutharika has called on Malawians to rescue their country from "collapse" as he was sworn in as president, after ousting his arch-rival Joyce Banda in disputed polls.

Peter Mutharika called on Malawians to rescue their country from "collapse" as he was sworn in as president on Saturday, after ousting his arch-rival Joyce Banda in disputed polls.

Mutharika, the brother of president Bingu wa Mutharika who died in office in 2012, appealed to the other 11 presidential candidates to "join me in rebuilding the country" as he took the oath of office with Vice President Saulos Chilima.

The results of the fraught May 20 election were announced late on Friday after the high court blocked a last-ditch demand for a recount.

"It's obvious we are facing serious problems in this country. All of us together, let us build the country which is almost on the verge of collapse," Mutharika said in his first speech since being declared president late Friday.

The 74-year-old law professor takes the leadership of Malawi facing treason charges for attempting to conceal his brother's death in office two years ago, in an alleged bid to prevent Banda -- then vice-president -- from assuming power.

As a former foreign minister and his brother's right-hand man, he was also a leading member of an administration widely blamed for bringing the small southern African country's economy to its knees through years of mismanagement.

At the time of Bingu wa Mutharika's death in 2012, stores were often empty, service stations dry and, shunned by international donors, Malawi had largely depleted its currency reserves.

Mutharika told journalists at a news conference at his residence in a leafy suburb of Nyambadwe in Blantyre that he would continue maintaining relationships with Western donors while courting "new friends" such as China and Brazil.

"It's inevitable, we will continue our relationship with donors who provide 40 percent of our recurrent budget," he said.

Banda on Saturday congratulated Mutharika for his "victory in a closely contested election," according to a statement.

The electoral commission said Mutharika took 36.4 percent of the votes cast against Banda's 20.2 percent, with the commission chief Maxon Mbendera declaring Mutharika "president-elect".

The results showed Banda beaten into third place by Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), who garnered 27.8 percent.

The tense elections saw sporadic outbreaks of violence among supporters of the different parties. One person was killed when police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters demanding a recount in the southeastern town of Mangochi.

Party spokeswoman Jessie Kabwila told AFP the MCP would challenge the results in court.

Banda, who became Malawi's first female president in 2012, had sought to have the polls declared "null and void" on the grounds of "serious irregularities".

There is speculation that Mutharika could now turn the tables and charge her with corruption over a $30 million graft scandal dubbed "Cashgate".

Banda has claimed credit for uncovering the fraud, which saw aid money siphoned into top government officials' pockets. But critics, including Mutharika, say the funds went into her party's election war-chest.

The stakes are no less high for Mutharika, leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), who along with other senior officials also faces charges inciting mutiny and conspiracy to commit a felony.

The trial is still pending, but analysts say it is likely the case will be set aside as Malawi's presidents enjoy immunity from prosecution as long as they are in office.

Banda made no mention of electoral fraud -- or any other charges -- as she issued a statement conceding defeat and urging the country to throw its weight behind Mutharika.

She urged "all Malawians to support the newly elected President Professor Mutharika and his government as they take on this foundation of progress and endeavour to develop Malawi even further".

Malawians should move forward "as one nation, to remain united, to uphold the rule of law, and continue being peaceful and calm as we head into the next fifty years of Malawi's future," Banda said.

-SAPA

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