Banda likely to sink with ship of one-party rule: The Life President will find it hard to remain in office if his people vote for multi-party politics today

MALAWI votes today in a referendum to decide whether it will remain a one-party state or adopt multi-party politics. Since independence in 1964, the country has been ruled by Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who had himself proclaimed President for Life in the constitution. Now in his late nineties, he is the last leader in sub-Saharan Africa to bend to the winds of multi-party democracy.

But although he grudgingly agreed to the referendum last October under pressure from Western aid donors, he has opposed the multi-party system so strongly in his recent speeches that if the vote goes against him today, he will find it hard to remain in power.

Malawi has been in the grip of an almost tangible excitement in the past few days. President Banda ruled absolutely and was proud of it. 'Everything in Malawi is my business,' he once said. Anyone who questioned, let alone opposed his rule, was beaten up or imprisoned. Some were executed, murdered or just disappeared. Britain strongly supported Dr Banda because of his opposition to sanctions against South Africa, but since the collapse of apartheid, Britain, like the other aid donors, has imposed a new agenda on Malawi that Dr Banda finds hard to comprehend. The aid donors suspended aid worth dollars 74m ( pounds 49m) last year, demanding moves to multi-party democracy after more than 40 pro-democracy demonstrators were killed in Blantyre.

Until recently this atmosphere of terror prevailed and even now the official state media, including the only radio station, urge Malawians to vote for the one-party state. But in the past few weeks opposition newspapers have sprung up and people have felt free to criticise Dr Banda in public.

In the absence of opinion polls in this overwhelmingly rural country, it is impossible to predict the outcome today, but multi-party advocates are confident of a landslide. Experienced observers estimate that there will be at least a two-thirds majority in favour of multi-party democracy.

One diplomat said: 'Dr Banda has tied himself firmly to the prow of a sinking ship.' Despite widespread intimidation by supporters of the ruling party, rallies organised by the two organisations advocating multi-party democracy have been well attended. At his last rally on Friday, Dr Banda could only manage a low turn-out beyond the party organisations, and people were reported to be streaming away before he had finished speaking.

The towns will all vote for multi- party democracy, and the north is widely regarded as lost to the President. A majority in favour of multi- party democracy is expected in the south. Only in the central region, where half the population lives and where the President comes from, is there expected to be some support for Dr Banda.

The government, which still maintains that the referendum will show those in favour of change represent a tiny dissident minority, has not disclosed its plans for what happens after the election. Chakufwa Chihana, the leader of Aford, the Alliance for Democracy, said he would call for a government of national unity leading to a constituent assembly, which would draw up a new constitution to lead rapidly to a general election.

Last Saturday, Mr Chihana was released from prison where he was serving a nine-month sentence for subversive activity. He said he felt no bitterness towards the old regime and wanted Dr Banda to stay on as a non- executive ceremonial president to preserve some continuity.

When, and if, the country does move to elections, the opposition to Dr Banda is divided between Aford and the United Democratic Front (UDF). The two parties are on good terms at the moment. The divisions between them - Aford tends to be northern, UDF southern; Aford tends to be those who have been long- term opponents of the government, the UDF tends to be made up of those who were in power until they jumped ship recently - are not deep or divisive. But come an election the prospect of Kenya stands as a warning. Here President Daniel arap Moi divided the opposition and won.