Malawi opposition comes into the open

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MALAWI'S political opposition groupings, straining against the restrictions of one- party rule, are claiming an astonishing growth in support since they emerged into the open more than a month ago, and say they are drawing recruits from within the ruling Malawi Congress Party (MCP).

Opposition leaders claimed recently in Lilongwe that MCP members - up to the highest levels - were defecting to their ranks and that the climate of fear surrounding Hastings Kamuzu Banda's presidency is falling away.

They say that a number of cabinet ministers have privately expressed strong sympathy for the opposition's campaign for the introduction of multi-party democracy, a claim endorsed by Western diplomatic sources in the Malawian capital. In announcing the referendum to determine whether Malawi's 8 million people want to keep the one-party state or implement Western-style democracy, President Banda was bowing to pressure from opponents at home and from Western donor countries concerned about human rights abuses.

The Alliance for Democracy (Aford) led by Chakufwa Chihana, who is being tried for sedition, claims hundreds of thousands of supporters. 'People want undiluted democratic change, where political parties are accountable to the people, not a one- party state,' an Aford leader close to Mr Chihana said in Lilongwe.

Aford's deputy chairman, Augustine Mnthanbala, said: 'There is a fever in the country for a change. Dr Banda is delaying the movement towards democracy and the more he delays, the more it undermines his own survival. The people may not forgive him. Now he has every opportunity to survive the political holocaust if he retires gracefully.'

The referendum on multi-party democracy is expected to take place in the spring. A UN team recently in Malawi to examine the conditions for the referendum is due to make its report. Aford wants the suspension of the constitution's Article 4 - which enshrines the status of the MCP as the sole legal party - before the referendum is held. This would enable Aford to campaign openly as a party. At the moment it, like the United Democratic Front, presents itself only as a pressure group.

The UDF's vice-chairman, Chakakala Chaziya, a former finance minister and governor of the national bank until he was sacked in 1986, said in Lilongwe that about two-thirds of the ruling party was ready to defect. He said his party enjoyed support from among businessmen and professionals and was making inroads among the country's poor rural majority. 'There is a rapid destruction of fear. Many people want to resign from the MCP but we have urged them to stay until we think the time is ripe. We've sent people into the rural areas to educate the masses.

'At first we went at night, but now we campaign openly and can stay a whole day without the government doing anything. Most members we are recruiting now are MCP activists. This is very useful because they are telling us the inside story.'

UDF organisers who attended a local committee meeting last month in the western town of Mchinje near the Zambian border claimed they had 84,000 supporters in the region.

Opposition leaders are heartened by a perceived independence of the judiciary. 'The judiciary often comes up with decisions the police don't like,' a UDF committee member said, citing the case of a local district commissioner for the party's Women's League who was jailed for two years after beating up a woman who had advocated multi-party democracy.

Mr Chaziya said the proposed referendum was a side-issue. He wanted to move straight to a free election: 'Malawians shouldn't have to be asked if they want the right to choose a multi-party system. We have that right, so let's just get on with it and hold elections.' Leaders of both opposition groupings were confident that if the referendum were free and fair, Mr Banda would lose heavily. 'The longer it takes, the more his chances decline, as we can reach more people,' Mr Chaziya said.