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Banda lies low after poll defeat

EIGHT hours after Malawi's National Referendum Commission had announced victory for the supporters of multi-party democracy, the government and the ruling party had still made no response to the result and President Hastings Kamuzu Banda was reported to be closeted with his ministers in an emergency meeting at the Sanjika Palace in Blantyre.

The usually accessible spokesman for the ruling Malawi Congress Party, Hetherwick Ntaba, was not contactable and Tony Mita, the government information officer, said it was not his job to comment on the result of the referendum, which was officially announced yesterday morning.

As news of the result spread, crowds threw caution to the winds and celebrated openly. In Blantyre, convoys of cars and lorries flying yellow tags, the colour of the multi-party groups, paraded through the streets, their occupants hanging out of the windows, giving the two-finger victory salute. Gangs of young people were shouting, waving and chanting 'No more Banda' and other slogans against the man and the party that have made Malawi a totalitarian state for the past 29 years. 'This is our second liberation,' said one man.

At a press conference in Lilongwe, Professor Brown Chimphamba, the chairman of the Referendum Commission, said that 63 per cent of 3.1 million voters had voted for multi- party democracy - with an overwhelming affirmation in the north, south and urban areas - and that the vote had been free and fair.

The United Nations observers are to report today. But a statement yesterday from the European Parliamentarians for Africa said that the referendum 'cannot be considered fully free and fair; however, the conduct of the polling was generally excellent.' It said any result in favour of a multi- party system 'probably reflects the will of the people'.

Representatives of the ruling party and the opposition groups will meet tomorrow, but yesterday opposition leaders were repeating their demands for reform of the constitution and a government of national unity. Before the referendum, Mr Ntaba said the government would accept the result and amend the constitution if people voted for multi-party democracy, but that a government of national unity was totally unacceptable.

Chakakala Chiziya, the deputy leader of the United Democratic Front, one of the two main parties advocating multi-party democracy, said that sections of the constitution entrenching the one-party state must be repealed within seven days.

Asked if President Banda should resign, he said that would be discussed by the opposition groups, adding: 'The President has put himself in a very difficult position because he told the people that they were choosing between him and multi-party democracy. The vote means that the people have no confidence in him. The rightful thing is for him to resign immediately'.

There are many signs that Malawi will be able to adjust to the new politics. The Malawi Congress Party Youth League, the storm-troopers of repression, stayed at home yesterday, and the police are not intervening. Malawi has Africa's least politicised army, and no one expects it to step in if there is a power vacuum.