Malawi ready to jump off Banda-wagon

Malawi's one-time president-for-life could be defeated at the polls tomorrow. The aged and ailing President, Hastings Kamazu Banda, is likely to find he is rejected by voters in the country's first multi-party elections since it gained independence from Britain in 1964. Dr Banda, believed to be in his nineties but officially aged 88, has had a long run: he took power two years after independence and named himself Life President in 1971.

His iron grip on power began to slip two years ago, when opposition leader Chakufwa Chihana returned from exile and led a push towards democracy. In a referendum last year, voters rejected the single-party system in favour of multi-party democracy.

Dr Banda may be down, but he's not out. Despite his infirmity, and widespread allegations of human rights abuses, the ruling Malawi Congress Party chose him as its presidential candidate. However, the United Democratic Front, led by Bakili Muluzi, is considered the front-runner.

Aged and ailing, though not quite president-for-life, Joaquin Balaguer is also attempting to cling to power after a long period at the helm. Voters in the Dominican Republic will decide today whether to elect the blind, 87-year-old President to a seventh term or turn to a younger, left-leaning politician, Jose Francisco Pena Gomez. The authoritarian Mr Balaguer first took office as President under the dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo in 1960. He has seldom been out of office since.

Victory by Mr Pena Gomez, 57, would mark the first time in more than 100 years that the Dominican Republic has been ruled by a black, and the election is as much a referendum on racial issues as it is on the candidates' age or politics. He has led Mr Balaguer in opinion polls throughout the campaign, though his lead has narrowed in recent weeks. Mr Balaguer, though blind, hard of hearing and unable to walk without assistance, cannot yet be written off.

The heir to the British throne - neither aged nor ailing - today begins a historic visit to Russia. Prince Charles will be the first member of the British royal family to visit the old imperial Russian capital of St Petersburg in a century. The Prince is on a three-day trip at the head of a delegation of his Business Leaders' Forum, which is providing assistance to the city.

But the visit has great symbolic importance, as Prince Charles will visit the tombs of the Romanov imperial family, who were related by blood to the British royal family. All the Romanov tsars are buried in St Petersburg except for the last, Nicholas II, who was killed along with his family by the Bolsheviks in Yekaterinburg in 1918. His marriage, in 1894, was the occasion for the last British royal visit.

Italy's Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, faces a crucial week as the Senate opens a debate today on a key confidence vote for his new government - the final hurdle in the tycoon's meteoric rise to power. The debate will end on Wednesday in a vote that could make or break the fledgeling government.

Albania's last Communist president, Ramiz Alia, goes on trial on Friday with nine others on charges of abuse of power. The heir to Enver Hoxha is also facing charges of misappropriation of state property. Hoxha's widow, Nexhmije, was sentenced to 11 years' imprisonment last year.

The United Nations Security Council meets on Wednesday to review Liberia's progress toward peace. But it will have to look hard to find any. The coalition government meant to start rebuilding the country after the civil war is itself incomplete, disarmament has slowed to a virtual halt and fighting continues in much of the country. As a result, few believe elections can take place in September as planned.

Gypsies representing communities in European Union member countries, Romania and the former Yugoslavia are to attend Europe's first congress in Seville on Wednesday. The four-day congress, to be opened by Spain's Queen Sofia and closed by the Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, is aiming to draw up EU policy on improving the integration of migrant gypsies and ending illiteracy.

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