Leading Article: Let the people have their say in Malawi

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The Independent Online
THE LARGE vote in favour of multi- party democracy in Malawi is an extraordinary event. After nearly 30 years of subjection to authoritarian and paternalistic rule, propped up by torture and murder, the people have at last had their say. The result will represent to them the same psychological liberation as the fall of the Berlin Wall did for East Germans. For Malawi has been unique among one-party African states in the extent of control exercised by its president, Hastings Banda. Even Zambia under Kenneth Kaunda had a critical press, a tradition of student opposition and a period of party politics. Malawi enjoyed none of these traditions, but moved virtually seamlessly in 1964 from colonial domination to dictatorship.

More generally, the referendum result is a firm rebuttal to those who would peddle the notion that human rights and democracy are irrelevant to poor people. Colonial governments which presumed to know their Africans were shocked to discover their enthusiasm for politics and voting. Dr Banda, who believed as an African that he knew the peasants, has been similarly surprised. Poor people, be they in Malawi, Cambodia or Iran, want to play a role in determining their futures just as much as people living in wealthy societies. Their support cannot be presumed or easily manipulated. This is a lesson that will be driven home once more when all South Africans enjoy the chance for the first time to vote for their government next April.

It is possible that Dr Banda and his acolytes will attempt to stave off defeat. They may try to ignore the result and, instead of holding multi-party elections, carry on much as before. Pessimists fear there could be a violent struggle. It is well known that Dr Banda has close links with Mozambique's Renamo rebels, who could be called in to support his tottering regime.

Britain and the international community could play an important role in supporting the hopes of those Malawians who voted at the weekend. It was the suspension of aid that forced Dr Banda to hold a referendum: Britain has greatest influence as the largest single former donor. It is important that the West holds firm and allows aid to flow again only when multi-party elections have been held and Dr Banda has bowed to the result.

Democracy will bring its own problems. Zambia after Mr Kaunda is already facing disillusionment as the electorate discovers that promises made by politicians go unfulfilled. The opposition could split along party lines; returned exiles and those who stayed may battle for power. There may be regional divisions: northerners feel economically marginalised compared with the centre and south.

However, a participatory rather than a subject society offers some hope of rescuing the country from its economic stagnation. In the Fifties, the highly-regarded Malawian economist Dunduza Chisiza warned in his pamphlet Africa: The Way Ahead of the need to guard against personal dictatorship. More than 30 years on, right-thinking Malawians are still struggling for that dream.