YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Malawi’s bishops have called for a “new era” in the southern African country as it prepares for elections next year.

“We are of the opinion that Malawi as a nation needs a change of direction if we are to reverse the situation. We mean a total change in the way of doing things other than business as usual,” the bishops said in an April 29 pastoral letter.

“This entails a change of mindset leading to a new era of fairness and justice for all.”

The elections scheduled for May 21, 2019, will elect a president, members of parliament, and local councilors.

According to the Malawi Electoral Commission, the poll will be held under the theme “Consolidating Malawi Democracy through the Ballot.”

The bishops’ letter comes as 78-year-old president Peter Mutharika was accused by the British newspaper The Times of “rack[ing] up a five-star hotel bill in Scotland large enough to feed hundreds of African children for a year.”

The report drew criticism from the Malawian government, which noted the UK government had provided the accommodation.

But the report still cast the president in a bad light, just after he announced he was running for re-election.

The 2019 poll will mark the 25th anniversary of the resumption of multi-party elections in Malawi, but the bishops said the country still needs change, especially within the country’s main political parties.

“As we celebrate the silver jubilee of the re-introduction of multi-party democracy, we should accept that the lack of open debate and the stifling of intra-party democracy in this country has not served us well,” they said in their pastoral statement.

“We cannot expect party leaders who stifle intra-party democracy and promote a culture of fear in their own parties to suddenly become democrats once they are in government. The hero worshipping and the cult of personality that is prevalent in political parties have continued,” the bishops continued.

The statement said Malawi is now worse off than it was when it became independent from the United Kingdom in 1964.

“Vast numbers of people do not have quality water, proper sanitation, electricity or satisfactory access roads. This is further exacerbated by poor planning in towns and cities,” the bishops claimed. “This goes hand in hand with political interference, poor economic management and rampant corruption. It is a fact that the majority of the people in the country are living very poor and miserable lives while the leaders they elect live posh lives and build mansions in the face of the poor.”

The bishops warned that a lack of democratic practices within political parties, rampant corruption, the lack of basic government services, and the growing gap between rich and poor is driving many Malawians to view one-party rule with “nostalgia for a dark and gloomy era in our country’s history and citizens’ readiness to gloss over the excesses of that time speak volumes about the frustrations felt by Malawians today.”

They also condemned “the extensive appointing powers of the president and the deployment of party officials and tribesmen to government departments and agencies,” that give the impression that “government only exists to benefit a connected few.”

The bishops said the necessary checks and balances that form the corner stone of democracy are absent, and that there was no “proper separation of powers between the three main branches of government,” and called on the country’s leaders to “revisit their constitutional mandate which is to govern solely for the benefit of the people of Malawi and to appreciate that they hold their positions on trust.”

They called for a strengthening of oversight institutions, and for a healthy politics that overcomes the culture of inertia.

“Democracy is meaningless if it is not used as a tool for meeting the country’s development needs. Citizens’ frustration with a system of government that they view as only benefitting the few and as failing to uplift their lives threatens our young democracy,” the bishops’ statement said.

Turning to the 2019 poll, the bishops said Malawi’s citizens have a duty to elect people they trust to implement their pre-election promises, or those who have demonstrated that they delivered on their promises while in previous leadership positions.

On the other hand, they cautioned against voting people into power based on hand-outs and empty rhetoric.

As a guide to voters, the bishops listed a number of qualities the electorate should be looking for in a leader, including honesty, selflessness, respect, decisiveness and a willingness to step down.

“Being a God-fearing nation, Malawi needs leaders who are genuinely God-fearing, respecting human and faith values.”

The bishops said the nation needs leaders “who demonstrate servant-style leadership,” and called on voters not to base their decision upon a candidate’s political party.

“Such a change of mindset can usher in a government fit to reverse evils such as corruption, executive arrogance, nepotism, media intimidation, and intolerance to criticism, indecision, and indifference to the suffering caused by poverty, destruction of the environment, unfulfilled promises, a stagnant economy and lack of financial probity,” the bishops said.