analysisBy Lameck Masina
With the public getting restless over the protracted Cashgate investigations, the longer the case drags on, the worse it will be for Banda come May.
Blantyre: As the countdown to Malawi's 20 May elections picks up speed, the government corruption scandal known as Cashgate continues to dominate headlines and the public debate. Malawians have been outraged at the story of high-level looting of state coffers, and in recent weeks several figures have outspokenly criticised the government's handling of the situation, which many see as being too slow.
The latest controversy surrounds an external audit of government departments conducted by British company Baker Tilly, which reported extensive fraud and theft but declined to release the names of the individuals implicated, claiming that doing so could jeopardise ongoing investigations.
With general elections scheduled for 20 May, it seems that Cashgate will loom large over proceedings. But will the scandal really determine which way the vote falls?
Cashgate first broke in September 2013 after the failed assassination attempt of Paul Mphwiyo, the government's budget director. It is believed Mphwiyo was about to expose a corruption syndicate, and in the wake of his attempted murder, police raids targeting several high-level officials uncovered wads of cash hidden in their cars and homes.
Over 60 individuals were arrested and accused of exploiting a loophole in the government's payment system to siphon off as much of $250 million.
President Joyce Banda responded by closing off the loophole, appointing a new cabinet, and commissioning an audit into government ministries and departments.
This wasn't enough to reassure some of Malawi's donors, however, and around $150 million worth of aid from the likes of the UK, EU and Norway was suspended. And as the scandal has dragged on, it seems Banda hasn't done enough so far to reassure most Malawians either.
The court cases of those arrested have not made any progress, the donor aid freeze threatens to undermine previous gains made in areas such as health and education, and the latest controversy over the concealment of specific names in the external audit has only sought to increase popular irritation.
Protests over the slow pace of the Cashgate investigations started back in December 2013 when the Black Monday movement, which called on Malawians to wear all black clothing every Monday as a sign of anger, was first launched. More recently, on 5 March, a group of civil society groups organised protests in Lilongwe and petitioned President Banda's administration to speed up its handling of the scandal.
Unsurprisingly with elections just months away, opposition parties have also taken on Cashgate in their campaign rhetoric, using the issue to criticise the government and paint it was as corrupt. Indeed, with the vote just round the corner, Banda has added pressure to appease Malawians and make sure she is seen to be dealing effectively with the investigations.
"Cashgate is the major electoral issue this year because of the great impact it has on the political and economic situation of the country," says rights activist Billy Mayaya. "The sooner it is resolved before elections, the better for President Banda's administration, because the abuse of public resources was uncovered under her watch, and Malawians are madly eager to know the truth."
"I think it will impact on President Banda's chances of winning the polls if not property handled," he adds.
Unfortunately for Banda, a recent survey suggests she may already be losing the perception battle over the issue. Researchers, organised by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace alongside the National Democratic Institute, interviewed groups of individuals from across the country and found that many respondents felt Banda had not done enough while others were simply unaware at what actions she had taken.
"To say the truth, we do not know what the President has done," said one participant.
It seems inevitable that Cashgate will be one of the issues in voters' minds as they cast their ballots in May, but the extent to which it could actually determine people's choices remains to be seen, and some argue that the significance of the scandal will be smaller than some have been suggesting.
The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), for example, explains that Banda has been weakened by the story, but nevertheless concludes: "Yet, helped by a crackdown on graft, a split opposition, and the benefits of incumbency, we expect Mrs Banda and her People's Party to secure another mandate."
Political analyst Augustine Magolowondo broadly agrees with this assessment. He predicts that the issue will take away some votes from the ruling party, "particularly from those who think the administration may not have done a lot or enough in the handling of the scandal." But he emphasises that many other factors will also be under consideration and that Cashgate may have relatively little effect on the vote overall.
Meanwhile, Ken Msonda, deputy spokesperson for the People's Party (PP), argues the scandal will actually be a vote-winner for Banda.
"If anything, the Cashgate scandal has increased the faith that Malawians have in the president," he insists. "This issue of plundering public resources started way back [before the PP was in power] and there was no political will [to tackle the problem] from the administrations before us."
The faithful party spokesperson asserts that President Banda has a comfortable 99.9% chance of winning elections, something with which her opponents would no doubt beg to differ, but it does seem that most analysts agree the incumbent holds the advantage in the upcoming ballot.
However, that is no reason for Banda to get complacent. With much of the public getting increasingly restless over the Cashgate investigations and most blaming the government for what they see as an unnecessarily protracted process to bring the plunderers to justice, the longer the investigations drag on, the worse it will be for Banda come May. And as Malawians saw in September and October last year as the events around the scandal unfolded, a lot can happen in just a couple of months.
Lameck Masina is an established journalist living and working in Malawi.