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Former Malawi president Muluzi barred from poll

LILONGWE (Reuters) - Malawi’s electoral commission on Friday barred influential former President Bakili Muluzi from contesting the election in May, a move that could raise political tensions and raise concerns among Western donors.

File photo of former Malawian President Bakili Muluzi April 27, 2004. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings/Files

Muluzi was arrested last month and charged with stealing millions of dollars given to Malawi by international donors during his decade as president, ending in 2004. He has denied any wrongdoing.

The electoral commission did not give any reason for its decision, which was announced on state radio.

Muluzi still has considerable grassroots support in some parts of the southern African nation despite his legal problems.

Keeping him out of the election race could create the type of political crisis that has threatened to derail international donor programmes.

President Bingu wa Mutharika dissolved Malawi’s opposition-controlled parliament on Friday, enabling campaigning to get under way for the May 19 presidential and parliamentary election.

State House Press Officer Chikumbutso Mtumodzi said the presidential announcement “effectively stops all business until a new government is sworn in.”

The Anti-Corruption said on Thursday it had been investigating Muluzi, who was president for 10 years until 2004 -- for two years on allegations of siphoning money from Taiwan, Morocco, Libya and other donors. He denies any wrongdoing.

Muluzi, who was the opposition United Democratic Front’s candidate for the election, stepped down in 2004 after unsuccessfully trying to change the constitution to allow him to stand again. But he remains a powerful political force.

Hailed as a hero in 1994 for removing dictator Kamuzu Banda, Muluzi announced a comeback last year and plans to contest the election. Muluzi was detained last year on suspicion of being involved in a coup plot. The charges were later dropped.

Eight candidates including one woman are running against Wa Mutharika in the presidential race and his main rivals include Malawi Congress Party leader John Tembo.

Wa Mutharika is expected to win after presiding over four years of economic growth averaging 7 percent a year, with inflation reduced to single digits.

But Wa Mutharika’s rule has been troubled since he took office in 2004 after winning an election marred by violence and accusations of ballot-rigging. Muluzi says prosperity has not trickled down to many Malawians.

Malawi relies heavily on balance of payment support from donors which accounts for 80 percent of its development budget.

Malawi’s economy had been enjoying a modest boom but was hit last year by food and fuel costs.