Banda backs down on ballot boxes

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MALAWI'S self-proclaimed President for Life, Hastings Banda, has conceded to opposition demands for a single ballot box in next month's referendum on multi-party democracy.

Dr Banda's decision was announced during a radio address late on Monday night, and follows warnings from opposition parties that they would boycott the referendum on 14 June unless he dropped his insistence on having separate ballot boxes at each polling station, one for 'yes' and one for 'no' votes. 'I will do everything to make sure this is a free and fair referendum,' Dr Banda said.

Under the system agreed by Dr Banda after strenuous arm- twisting from a UN envoy, voters will be given two ballot papers, for and against the continuation of single-party rule. In a voting booth they will put one in the envelope. They will then put the envelope in the ballot box. The two main opposition parties, the United Democratic Front and the Alliance for Democracy, welcome the arrangement. 'We are quite happy with that,' said a UDF campaigner.

Opposition sources described Dr Banda's announcement as a 'humiliating defeat' for the Malawi Congress Party, which has ruled for 29 years. They hailed his concession as a recognition by the government that unless the opposition parties took part in the referendum, the poll would be regarded as worthless and Western donors would be unlikely to resume aid supplies.

A report by Amnesty International yesterday, completed before Monday's announcement, described regulations protecting free speech for participants in the election as 'deeply flawed and ineffective'.