MALAWI: Budget passed at last

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Malawi's opposition party, the United Democratic Front (UDF), has succumbed to civil society pressure to pass the national budget after a four-month delay that has prevented the release of donor funds.

In response President Bingu wa Mutharika prorogued parliament last week, which analysts interpreted as a display of presidential authority. "These people [parliament] have been meeting for four months and wasted over 310 million kwacha (US$2,2 million)," Mutharika said in an address on national radio.

"They do not have the welfare of the poor at all; that is why they rejected the budget. Instead of concentrating on issues concerning development they demanded that the Speaker should act on Section 65. They have been a waste of time."

The UDF delayed the budget's passage as a strategy to force the Speaker to table the issue of floor crossing by parliamentarians who had joined Mutharika's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), citing Section 65 of the Constitution, which bars legislators from switching allegiance from their sponsoring parties.

The DPP had welcomed 60 defectors into its fold, bringing its tally of members in parliament to 80, but in June Malawi's Supreme Court had granted powers to the Speaker to expel defecting lawmakers, a decision that would affect the strength of the ruling party.

Civil society groups, including the Malawi Economic Justice Network, a coalition of more than 100 civil society organisations, condemned the gerrymandering around the budget and rallied behind Mutharika in criticising the opposition for prioritising the floor-crossing issue at the expense of development.

A few days before the opposition party allowed the budget to be passed, the Civil Liberties Committee (CILIC), a human rights non-governmental organisation, proposed to government that parliamentarians' allowances and salaries be frozen for their failing to pass the budget, as the country stood to lose millions of dollars in foreign aid over the impasse.

Charles Kumbatira, executive director of the Malawi Economic Justice Network, said the agriculture and food-security budget allocations, amounting to about 12 percent of the total expenditure of 176 billion kwacha (US$1.2 billion), were a priority.

"Government should be commended for its plans to continue with the fertiliser subsidy programme. We also commend government for improving the system to
ensure that fertiliser reaches farmers equitably," Kumbatira said. The programme, which helps farmers to buy subsidised agricultural inputs, required some improvements after fertiliser was delivered late in a few areas.

Despite these minor hiccups, Malawi has made an almost complete recovery from a drought in 2005 that left close to five million people in need of food aid. The 2007 maize crop has seen a 22 percent increase over last year's, and is 73 percent higher than the average for the past five years, according to government estimates.

Mavuto Bamusi, a Malawi-based commentator, said donors would only release funds if the budget was passed, and the budget had to be passed in good time to enable the government to place orders for fertiliser, drugs and other commodities essential for government services.

"With the budget in place, government will be able to fund its development projects," Bamusi said. "And with a budget, donors will be free to release their money for budgetary support."

Source: IRIN