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MALAWI: Women Candidates Hard Hit by Election Postponement

Claire Ngozo

LILONGWE, Aug 26 2010 (IPS) - News that Malawi’s November local government elections are to be postponed yet again has hit female candidates hard – and mostly in their pockets. And it could mean that the country will have less female candidates to vote for when they finally go to the polls.

Many women candidates feel short-changed with the decision by the Malawi Election Commission (MEC) to postpone the Nov. 23 elections. On Aug. 23 the MEC announced the elections will now be held on Apr. 20, 2011.

But women candidates, just like their male contenders, have already started campaigning and spent money buying handouts for voters. In Malawi election campaigns are expensive; most potential voters expect candidates to give them handouts, such as T-Shirts, cloth, food items and even money during campaign rallies and door-to-door campaigning.

The freebies are seen as a sign of ‘compassion’ and are an unofficial requirement when contesting elections in Malawi. Some female candidates have even invested their life savings into their campaigns and many fear they will not have the funds to continue until 2011.

Jane Wandidya, a female candidate who had set her eyes on contesting the local polls in Mkanda, Mulanje – a district in southern Malawi – expressed her disappointment over the postponement of the elections. Wandidya, a livestock farmer, has been campaigning since April. She told IPS that she has since sold 20 of her 28 goats and 54 of her 70 chickens to raise money for her campaign – especially for buying freebies for potentials voters.

“I have spent all the money I raised from selling the livestock. I am running out of steam as well. I am not sure if indeed the elections will be held on the new date. All the zeal I had has faded. I am not sure if I will regain the energy to continue campaigning,” she said.

But the postponement should come as no surprise as local polls in Malawi have been continually postponed for a decade since 2000. Since the country attained democracy in 1994, Malawi has conducted local government elections only once in 2000.

Until it was changed in Dec. 2009, the country’s Constitution had prescribed that under Section 147, the local polls would take place in the third week of May in the year following the national general elections. Ideally, the first local government elections were to be held in May 1995 a year after Malawi ushered in democracy. But this failed to happen until 2000. The local elections also failed to take place in 2005 and the country has had no elections since then.

Though in Dec. 2009, the country’s Parliament, amended Section 147 of the Constitution and gave President Bingu wa Mutharika the power of deciding when the local elections will be held.

Beauty Kasonde, a 24-year-old woman from Mpanje village in the lakeshore district of Salima, Central Malawi, has been campaigning for the position of local councillor since April. She is also disappointed that the election date has been moved forward.

She told IPS that she did not have enough money to satisfy voter’s demands for freebies and has been dedicating time and energy in coming up with alternative ways of campaigning which, she said, were becoming effective as many people indicated interest in her.

“I do not have money to spend on buying materials for distribution. I was going around in local gatherings such as funerals, weddings and even initiation ceremonies to campaign. I was looking forward to contesting in the November elections since I noticed that people wanted to elect me as their local representative,” she told IPS.

“It is so disappointing that after spending so much time and energy the elections have been postponed. Time is money and I have spent it all for nothing,” worried Kasonde.

The MEC’s spokesman Richard Mveriwa told the local media that the elections had to be postponed after the electoral body realised that it would have challenges meeting the calendar of events for the elections.

Mveriwa disclosed that a new draft calendar indicates that the official campaign for next year’s election will start on February 18 and end on April 18, 2011. “The electoral calendar is still being worked on and will be sent to the president so that he sets the date,” said Mveriwa.

But Jailos Chatela, a potential voter in Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial capital, is unhappy with the postponement and not satisfied with the conduct of the MEC. He says he does not believe the elections will take place after all the postponements that have happened before.

“As local people, we continue to get denied a chance to choose development projects that are needed in our local councils. There’s is no local representation in the district and town assemblies and this means our communities will still not get the local development we desperately need,” Chatela told IPS.

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