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Malawi Elects Opposition Leader

Africa's oldest head of state voted out of office after 30 years of despotic rule

MALAWIANS have rejected 30 years of iron-fisted, one-party rule, sweeping away the regime of H. Kamuzu Banda in elections held on Tuesday.

Unofficial results of Malawi's first multiparty poll - in which 3.7 million voted - gave a victory yesterday to opposition leader and former Banda stalwart Bakili Muluzi (see story at left).

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Mr. Muluzi's United Democratic Front (UDF) will dominate the new 177-seat parliament, though it will be forced to form a coalition government with Banda's defeated Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and its main opposition rival, the Alliance for Democracy (AFORD).

Banda yesterday admitted defeat, telling Malawians on national radio that he would give his ``full support and cooperation'' to the new government. ``Now is the time to bury all political difference and work toward a united Malawi,'' he said.

United Nations election observers and official figures pointed at press time to a 42 percent victory for Muluzi, trailed by Banda, with nearly 33 percent. The AFORD party of opposition leader Chakufwa Chihana picked up 23 percent and will serve as ``kingmaker'' in the otherwise hung parliament. Election observers from the Commonwealth declared the vote ``free and fair,'' with few reports of intimidation or violence.

``We are very excited because we are looking for a change,'' says Gladson Ntuntha, among the first to vote at Blantyre's Old City Hall. ``Malawians are very understanding people. But after being in bondage for 30 years, we want to be free.''

Sweeping change in a year

``Two years ago we couldn't dream of voting. We've waited so long, it has come as a miracle,'' says voter Kaelton Girard Nkona.

One year ago, it was a criminal offense to burn the image of the president. But thousands of discarded ballots with his picture were burned at Blantyre polling station late Tuesday. UDF supporters cheered and chanted slogans calling for change.

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Banda, the oldest head of state in the world, worked in Britain for 40 years as a doctor. He returned to Malawi to fight British rule until independence in 1964, when he took control. During his reign, Malawi has been one-party state - a government as overwhelming in its crushing of opponents and basic freedoms as was Nicolae Ceausescu's Romania.

Under pressure from Western donors, Banda held a multiparty referendum last June in which Malawians gave him a paltry 36 percent support. Parties were legalized and registered, 23 newspapers emerged - some owned by opposition parties - and a strict dress code was repealed.

``Malawi was a model dictatorship,'' says a long-time Western observer. ``Now it wants to be a model democracy.''

Tuesday's election confirmed Banda's political unpopularity, though many Malawians said they hoped their ``grandfather,'' who has been ill, could now rest.

In an interview, Muluzi said the defeated president would be cared for and given a pension despite past mistakes. The UDF government will concentrate, he says, on limiting Malawi's dependence on foreign aid and on easing poverty.

Results closely followed regional lines. Banda and his MCP did well in the central region, his home area. Mr. Chihana, of AFORD, swept the north, his home region. Muluzi's UDF victory was ensured by good organization throughout the country and strong support in the most populous south.

As he aged, the myth of Banda's benevolent rule began to grow: He has done much good for impoverished Malawi, provided a good infrastructure, and a generation of stability.

But for political opponents - hundreds of whom are dead or have been imprisoned and tortured - Malawi has been insufferable. Until last year, the MCP was the only political party permitted. Eight parties contested the elections.

``It is calm on the surface, but in Malawi, that can change at any moment,'' says a Western diplomat. ``The worry is about after the result.''

Minister of Defense Gen. Wilfred Mponelas on Monday warned the outgoing MCP Parliament that ``anyone who tries to interfere with free and fair elections will be met with full force of the Malawi Defense Force.''

For the human rights group Amnesty International, Malawi has always been a ``closed country'' since Banda took power. Opponents, Banda said, would be ``meat for crocodiles,'' and even until last year, multiparty campaigners received death threats. Banda used the police, paramilitary Malawi Young Pioneers, and an extensive informer network to maintain his control.In 1983, three ministers and an MP were killed in a suspicious car crash after discussing political reforms. They were last seen alive in police custody, and their families saw their bodies riddled with bullets, Western diplomats say. The fight against opponents reached beyond Malawi's borders: In 1983, an opposition leader was assassinated in Zimbabwe. In 1989, a journalist died in a bombing in Zambia.

Rule by whim

The first outpouring of public criticism came in March 1992, after a Roman Catholic Lenten letter was read in every church across the country. The letter was branded seditious, and MCP officials debated killing top bishops, according to Amnesty.

Such measures were taken to protect Banda's carefully created personality cult, which allowed him to rule according to his whims. Miniskirts and trousers were forbidden for women, along with bell-bottomed pants and below-the-neckline hair on men.

The iron rule meant that Banda could pursue a unique foreign policy. In 1966, he broke rank with every black African country and forged ties with apartheid South Africa.

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