by Angus Macdonald
MALAWIANS this week voted massively for multi-party democracy despite last-minute threats against the country's Catholic bishops.
As the rest of the world celebrated the 2,500th anniversary of the birth of democracy, Malawi's 4.2 million voters were celebrating their own democratic dawn. They voted overwhelmingly for an end to nearly 30 years of one-party rule under the autocratic President Hastings Banda.
Thousands queued to make their choice between the black cock the symbol of the ruling Malawi Congress Party (MCP), headed by the ageing Dr Banda and the symbol of the hurricane lamp. representing the coalition of opposition parties who have been pressing for democratic reforms, backed by the Churches.
But as the votes were being counted, it emerged that Malawi's Catholic bishops who have been consistently attacked by the government throughout the campaign had agreed to celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi a week late in order to defuse allegations that they were organising prodemocracy rallies.
By co-incidence, Corpus Christi fell on the eve of the date chosen for the referendum, 14 June. MCP leaders accused Catholic priests of intending to hold all-night vigils and processions "so that their members could leave together for the polling stations and vote for the lantern".
But Archbishop James Chiona of Blantyre, the head of Malawi's Catholics, said the government was "ignorant" if it did not know that prayers and processions took place on Corpus Christi throughout the Catholic world. "If the MCP chooses to cook up stories against me and the Church, it is not new to us. it is their habit." He said the bishops had decided to postpone the celebration of the feast in Malawi to 20 June "for the sake of peace and order".
Demands for political change in the Central African country were sparked off by an historic pastoral letter from Malawi's six Catholic bishops in April last year, in which they criticised the government's record on human rights. Irish Kiltegan missionary and bishop-elect Mgr John Roche, one of the signatories to the letter, was subsequently deported, whilst death threats were made against the remaining bishops.
Speaking from Ireland, Mgr Roche this week welcomed the result of the vote. "I am thrilled, delighted and slightly amazed by this but happy that the Malawian people have felt within themselves strong enough and free enough to express their desires."
Mgr Roche said the bishops' April pastoral letter had been a turning-point for the country: "It gave voice to what Malawians knew themselves. Many people said to me afterwards, we knew this was true, but you were the first to speak it"