By Macdonald Thom & Rebecca Chimjeka:
Three candidates in the May 21 presidential elections yesterday took turns in outlining programmes they have for Malawians in the first-round of presidential debate at Bingu International Convention Centre in Lilongwe.
Malawi Congress Party (MCP) candidate Lazarus Chakwera, UTM hopeful Saulos Chilima and their United Democratic Front (UDF) counterpart Atupele Muluzi responded to questions on agriculture, education, health and corruption and governance from moderator Grace Malera.
As expected, the fourth candidate listed on the day, President Peter Mutharika of Democratic Progressive Party, did not show up.
Muluzi became a controversial figure as he, in the course of the debate, picked on Chakwera and Chilima.
However, both candidates defended themselves, whenever given a chance to respond to the issues.
When Malera put it to the candidates on what they will do on Farm Input Subsidy Programme (Fisp), Chakwera and Chilima said their parties will introduce universal fertiliser subsidy programme.
“We need universal fertiliser subsidy. The issue of coupons has brought enmity in our midst. We need farmer clubs, we need agricultural extension workers. We need to mechanise production. We have measures in place to improve the agricultural sector,” Chakwera said.
Chilima said, although Fisp was good, the programme has been affected by a number of factors.
“Others are taking advantage of the programme. Selection of beneficiaries has become a problem. We just need to get rid of the system. We need universal fertiliser subsidy,” Chilima said.
But Muluzi did not answer the question directly.
Instead, he said his party is already engaging different stakeholders on how best they can revamp the agriculture sector.
“The world has changed but our agricultural system has not changed. Our farmers are not benefitting. We have already started engaging buyers of farm produce on how best we can connect with farmers,” Muluzi said.
But when Malera quizzed him further on his position, he chose to stand his ground, stating that manifestos of both MCP and UTM are not bringing new things to the agriculture sector.
Muluzi’s cricitism on fellow panellists provoked jeers from part of the audience that did not like his approach to the debate, at the same time cheers from his supporters.
Although all the three candidates differed on responses to some questions, they all agreed on the abolition of quota system of selecting students to institutions of higher learning.
When asked what they will do on corruption, Chakwera said his government will strengthen governance institutions.
“We will make sure that governance institutions are given enough powers and resources to perform their duties,” Chakwera said.
Chilima said presidential immunity from prosecution will be removed and that the Anti- Corruption Bureau will be given enough powers to perform its duties.
However, some of the dignitaries who attended the event described first round of the debate as a fair start
US Ambassador to Malawi Virginia Parmer said she was impressed to see presidential candidates articulating issues.
“I am impressed with how candidates articulated issues. This is good for Malawians to make decision when it comes to who to vote for in May elections,” Palmer said.
African Union representative to Southern Africa Region Auguste Ngomo said it has been a good start though he was looking forward to the candidates to link the question to their manifestos.
Malawi Health Equity Network Executive Director George Jobe said he was impressed to hear that the candidates agreed to the Universal Healthcare for All that stipulates that 15 percent of the total national budget should go the health sector.
At the beginning, Chairperson of the debate task force, Teresa Ndanga said the debate is important as it would help the candidates to speak to the voters.
“The debate will also help to level the playing field, where one party does not dominate the media,” Ndanga said.
The task force comprised Misa-Malawi, Times Group, Malawi Broadcasting Corporation, Zodiac Broadcasting Station, Centre for Multiparty Democracy, Democacry Works Foundation, Civil Society Agriculture Network, Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, Malawi Law Society, Public Affairs Committee, Voluntry Service Organisation, National Initiative for Civic Education Public Trust and National Democratic Institute.
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