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June 2 (GIN) – In his second try for elected office, Peter Mutharika captured the winning margin of victory and edged out Malawi’s first woman president – Joyce Banda.

The 74 year old Mutharika, brother of a former president, was declared the victor last week in a disputed election. But he comes into office under a cloud, accused of attempting a constitutional coup two years ago by hiding the death of his brother, President Bingu wa Mutharika, in order to block Mrs. Banda – then vice-president – from assuming the presidency.

When President Bingu wa Mutharika suffered a cardiac arrest on April 5, 2012, brother Peter allegedly pushed forward a measure allowing him to become President, overriding the constitution. A secret meeting  to swear him in failed and Mrs. Banda was elevated to the top job.

As president, Mrs. Banda undid some of Bingu’s more damaging measures: she opened up political space (resulting in this past election being Malawi’s most fiercely contested) and enticed donors back into the country (40% of Malawi’s budget comes from international aid), took a personal pay cut and sold the ex-president’s luxury jet.

She fired the Inspector General of Police, Peter Mukhito, accused of instilling a climate of fear through arbitrary arrests and the shooting of 19 people during anti-government protests in 2011.

Others dismissed were finance minister Ken Lipenga and justice minister Ralph Kasambara over the so-called “Cash-gate” corruption controversy.

Still, Mrs. Banda appeared to go too far in appeasing the International Monetary Fund, agreeing to austerity measures and painful structural reforms. These came at a high price for the majority of Malawians who now struggle to cope with the continuous rise in the cost of food, especially bread and the staple maize meal.

Incoming president Mutharika, meanwhile, gave his inaugural address this week at the Kamuzu Stadium in the commercial capital, Blantyre, where he made grand promises, pledging to grow the economy based on tobacco by 7.5 percent annually over the next five years, and fight corruption.

He said his government would invest in infrastructure and improve food supplies in a country where about half of the population lives on less than $1 a day.

“The economy of this country has collapsed, our civil servants aren’t working, the private sector isn’t working and our children aren’t going to school,” he said.

Mutharika, who lived abroad for approximately 40 years, reportedly turned in his U.S. green card this year.  The constitution of Malawi prohibits dual citizenship.

The U.S. and UK have already sent congratulations to the newly-elected Mutharika and Mr. Saulos Chilema, vice president with the U.S. “look(ing) forward to continuing our close partnership with the Government of Malawi in the advance of our mutual interests of supporting Malawi’s development.” w/pix of P. Mutharika

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