JOHANNESBURG – Malawi’s vice president was sworn in as its new leader Saturday, ending a brief but dangerous tussle for power after the country’s increasingly authoritarian president died of a massive heart attack.
The new president, Joyce Banda, a longtime proponent of women’s rights in one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world, had fallen out with her predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika. She vowed Saturday to uphold Malawi’s democratic constitution.
Under the country’s constitution, the vice president takes over after the death of a president, but officials delayed announcing Mutharika’s death for two days as his inner circle struggled to cling to power, even naming Mutharika’s younger brother, Peter wa Mutharika, as acting president.
In one outward sign of the power struggle, Information Minister Patricia Kaliati called a news conference Friday with several other ministers to say that Banda couldn’t be president because she had left the ruling party and founded her own opposition party.
As Banda took office Saturday, she paid tribute to Mutharika, calling for 10 days of mourning.
She held a news conference Saturday flanked by army and police commanders, leaving no doubt that she had taken charge of the country. Mutharika’s Cabinet ministers were ordered not to speak to the state-owned media unless cleared to do so by the military, according to local news reports.
Banda will hold office until elections are held, due in 2014, and will appoint a new vice president.
Banda, an outspoken critic of the president, may usher in a new era, restoring democratic freedoms that Mutharika had begun to restrict. If Banda is seen to be heading in the right direction, Western donors are likely to restore aid to Malawi, where 70 percent of the population survives on a dollar a day.