Malawi candidates to face off in first ever presidential debate By REX CHIKOKO in Blantyre | Wednesday, January 15   2014 at  09:52

President of Malawi Joyce Banda addresses the Nutrition for Growth global hunger summit in central London on June 8, 2013. Her record in office will be on the spotlight as the country holds an election on May 20, 2014. FILE | AFP 

The Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) has announced that presidential candidates in the country's May elections will face each other in three national televised debates.

This will be the first time presidential aspirants in Malawi will debate each other before an election.

The Commission also released a calendar of poll events as political parties and individuals continued to flock to its offices to collect nomination papers for the May 20 ballot.

The first debate will be held on March 25 in the northern city of Mzuzu, while a second one will be on April 10 in the capital Lilongwe. A third will be in Blantyre, six days before the election.

Malawi politicians are often criticised for concentrating on personalities and trivialities during campaigns at the expense of real bread-and-butter issues.

So far no political party has presented its manifesto to Malawians yet.

Presidential aspirants seeking nomination from the Commission have to be able to read and write in English, have no allegiance to another country, be at least 35 years and pay a fee of $2,300.

Feverish campaigning

At least seven aspirants are challenging the incumbent, President Joyce Banda. Key rivals include Peter Mutharika, a brother to the late President Bingu wa Mutharika who she succeeded after he died in office.

Mr Atupele Muluzi will be vying on the United Democratic Front, a former ruling party founded by former President Bakili Muluzi, while Reverend Lazarus Chakwera will represent Kamuzu Banda's former ruling Malawi Congress Party.

Mr Mutharika will have to fend off a treason case for allegedly attempting to prevent President Banda's accession, while his allegiance to the country is being questioned as he holds an American green card.

Analysts say Mr Mutharika's party needs to have a contingency plan in case he is barred from the race.

"Since Malawi politics dwell much on personalities, Peter Mutharika's issues are likely to bring in some legal controversies as we run towards the voting day. The party must be strategising on a Plan B," said political commentator Billy Banda of Malawi Watch.

Official campaigning runs from March 18 to May 18, although most aspirants have been feverishly vote-hunting for nearly a year.

Some eight million Malawians are eligible to vote as the southern African country prepares to mark 50 years of independence a month after the ballot.

The main election issues revolve on Malawian gains over the last half-century, the eradication of hunger and poverty, corruption and social issues such as education and health.

Malawi is among the ten poorest countries in the world with low literacy levels, a devastating AIDS epidemic, and major economic issues with 40 per cent of its budget still financed by donors.