Embattled Malawi president calls opposition to a crisis meeting

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Embattled Malawi president Bingu wa Mutharika, whose minority government has come under pressure in the opposition-dominated 193-member parliament, on Wednesday called opposition leaders to a crisis meeting at New State House in Lilongwe, government and opposition leaders have confirmed.

“Yes, we are meeting opposition leaders,” said Mutharika’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) leader in Parliament Henry Chimunthu Banda, during a break. “So far it has been a frank and candid discussion,” he added.

The New State House also houses the chamber of Parliament. John Tembo, opposition leader and president of the main opposition Malawi Congress Party, said: “Talks are still on, you know our demands.”

The opposition wants Speaker of Parliament Louis Chimango to expel from Parliament over 70 MPs who defected from the opposition to join Mutharika’s DPP.

The 73-year-old economist was the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) presidential candidate, but quick to found the DPP nine months after winning the May 2004 general elections. President Mutharika fell out with former president Bakili Muluzi who ironically anointed him as successor.

Since then the opposition, led by Muluzi, has been baying for his political blood. Impeachment was tried and failed but the opposition has successfully been frustrating government agenda in Parliament, including causing a five-month delay in passing the 2007/08 national budget.

The 2008/09 budget, a crucial one coming in an election season, also faces a similar test. The opposition boycotted Mutharika’s State of the Nation address at the opening of the session two weeks ago and has been shooting down all government’s financial bills.

Muluzi has even announced he would contest the scheduled 2009 elections with the sole aim of removing Mutharika from power. His eligibility is, however, in doubt although his UDF party has already endorsed him as candidate.

Civil society and church leaders have been urging Mutharika to initiate dialogue with the opposition to end the deadlock but the president has, until now, responded by whipping up public anger against the opposition. There have been a number of government-sponsored demonstrations against the opposition in all cities.

“Today’s initiative is a welcome development although it is long overdue,” said MacDonald Sembereka, chairman of the Council for Non-Governmental Organisations in Malawi (CONGOMA). “This is a political problem that needs a political settlement,” he said.

The meeting, which is being attended by Tembo and George Mtafu of the UDF, among others, went well into the night. Panapress .

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