Banda totters into step with the times

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BLIND and almost deaf, President Hastings Banda is rapidly losing his grip on Malawi, where once he boasted that nothing happened without his consent. But in one lucid moment he agreed to a referendum on multi-party democracy, a step which is opening up Malawi's politics and may prevent a violent struggle for succession after his death. Until then President Banda, not for the first time out of step with the politics of the rest of the continent, had vigorously opposed multi-party democracy in Malawi.

His separation from reality is illustrated by this report: after a visit to London for medical reasons earlier this year he described how British people lined the road from the airport, waving and cheering him. 'This presumably is what his aides wanted him to hear,' one observer said this week. 'He is cocooned in flattery.'

The announcement that the President has agreed to hold a referendum on Malawi's single-party constitution has allowed banned movements to come into the open and given leading Malawians the opportunity to oppose the ruling Malawi Congress Party.

Two political movements have emerged as Malawi's opposition: the Alliance for Democracy and the United Democratic Front. Although both parties play down any suggestion of antagonism, observers point out that there is mistrust between them. The Alliance for Democracy (AFORD) consists largely of exiles and has been operating outside the country. It is led by Chakufwa Chihana, a trade unionist who is facing trial for subversion, and sees itself as a pressure group for change rather than a political party. In contrast, the United Democratic Front has operated in secret until now but came into the open after the President's announcement. It is made up of former members of the ruling party and former ministers, some of whom have only recently quit the government. There is a feeling in AFORD that there is a strong element of opportunism in the Front. Both groupings are largely urban and professional, with little support in rural areas, where most Malawians live.

Both new movements will campaign for an early date for the referendum and for a 'yes' to multi-party democracy. President Banda's sudden announcement has served to undermine John Tembo, the man widely tipped to succeed him. The deeply unpopular Mr Tembo, a minister in the President's office, has been in the forefront of the campaign against multi- party democracy and must now change tack. Mr Tembo's only chance of coming to power would have been to seize control of the state after President Banda's death but an election would prevent that. At the moment he controls access to the President through his niece, Cecilia Kadzimira, described as 'Official Hostess' to the unmarried President.