In which Malawi’s government decides to ignore the constitution

Update: despite earlier signs that the Government would try and block her constitutionally-mandated succession, Joyce Banda has been sworn in as the new president of Malawi, so crisis averted (well, for now). 

It has been over a day since Bingu wa Mutharika suffered a heart attack, and while the Government has still refused to release official confirmation that he has died, the public instead received a chilling indication that Mutharika’s regime will not go out without a fight.

As Kim Yi Dionne pointed out yesterday Malawi’s constitution clearly specifies that the Vice President is first in line for succession in the event that the president dies or is incapacitated. Malawi’s VP, Joyce Banda fell out of favor with the ruling party DPP some time ago, making the prospect of her assuming power unpalatable for Mutharika and the rest of the president’s Cabinet

For a long time the Government remained silent, both on the state of Bingu’s health (despite an alarming number of reports that he is dead, perhaps even before he made it to the hospital) and on the matter of his succession. This has made everyone uneasy – stalling on the Government’s part suggests that they are planning an strategy to block Banda’s succession. Perhaps to put a little bit of pressure on the Government to behave, both the British and American governments announced that they expected Banda to assume the office ASAP.

That silence was broken today when a subset of the cabinet, led by Information Minister and all-around-nefarious-person Patricia Kaliati, announced that Joyce Banda was ineligible due to her behavior while in office (video here – hat tip to Kim), including starting her own political party (which she did after she was thrown out by Mutharika). While they did not announce who the actual successor would be and would not reveal any information about Bingu wa Mutharika himself, this is a clear indication that the Government plans to circumvent the constitution.

It’s getting late in Denmark, so I’ll just offer a few thoughts before signing off:

Normally, I am wary of donors getting to involved in the decisions of recipient governments which are democratically elected, for fear that donor commitments will crowd out the natural accountability generated at the polls. This is quite different – we have a government which is very clearly going to choose to abandon its democratic principles and the international community might have the ability to make that decision too painful to bear.

Here are some options: donors could immediately and credibly rally behind Joyce Banda, not necessarily because she is the best candidate for president, but because Malawi’s constitution makes it clear that she is is the successor. Credible support can come in the form of donor dollars – no government which does not respect this succession should receive aid – the aim should be to make the decision very, very stark for the DPP. If this was combined with the threat of an odious debt sanction – where no new contracts signed by the Government will be enforced in courts, the squeeze might be even tighter.

What donors should not do is fall back on simple rhetoric about accountability. It has to be a clear choice – money flows if Banda succeeds. Money stops if she doesn’t. For it to be credible, donors need to be prepared to walk away – I fear that they won’t be.

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