Opposition threat to boycott Malawi poll

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The Independent Online
THE OPPOSITION in Malawi says it will boycott a referendum on whether or not the country should keep to one-party rule unless the government agrees to drop its insistence on having two ballot boxes at each polling station, one for 'yes' and one for 'no' votes.

A leading opposition spokesman, Mordechai Msisha, speaking from Blantyre yesterday, said the opposition had given the government until Thursday to meet their demands. 'We will not accept the use of two ballot boxes under any circumstances. If the government accepts our proposal for a single ballot box, then we will take part. But we would like this matter resolved by 13 May. Otherwise it becomes farcical. Time is running out.'

Mr Msisha said the secretary- general of the International Commission of Jurists was expected in Malawi today, sent as an envoy of the United Nations, to 'try to persuade the government to see sense'. The opposition had planned to pull out on 1 May if President Hastings Kamuzu Banda had not met their demands by then, but agreed to postpone the ultimatum after an appeal last week from Horacio Borneo, leader of the UN team advising Malawi on the conduct of the 14 June referendum.

It is considered unlikely that the international community would recognise the outcome of the referendum if the opposition does not participate. 'Most people see the referendum as a way of getting some movement towards democracy and respect for human rights, so that supplies of aid can be resumed,' said Mr Msisha. He added: 'The government need it more than we do. We think it is a waste of money and time.'

The proposed boycott, on which the two main opposition parties, the Alliance for Democracy (Aford) and the United Democratic Front (UDF), are united, follows hard on the heels of a report saying that the referendum would be a sham unless the government lifts restrictions on freedom of expression.

Article 19, the International Centre Against Censorship, says that opposition supporters are being routinely harassed, beaten, shot, arrested and denied free access to the media. Its report particularly condemns the government's insistence on 'yes' and 'no' ballot boxes as an invitation to intimidation and fraud.

Dr Banda, who has run a one- party state since 1964, called the referendum in response to pressure from Western donors who last May suspended aid in protest against the country's human rights abuses.