A pro-democracy campaigner trumped the ruling party candidate on Wednesday in a critical by-election that signals increasing opposition to President Bingu wa Mutharika's seven-year rule of Malawi.
Mutharika on Wednesday announced a new and leaner Cabinet of 30 members, apparently heeding protesters demands that his 42-member team was too expensive for the southern African nation's agriculture-dependent economy.
The president had fired his entire Cabinet three weeks ago following July protests in which police fired on demonstrators and killed 20 people. Another 250 were injured.
In the by-election, the electoral commission announced Enoch Chihana won 6,641 votes in the parliamentary seat for the northern Rumphi district against 3,275 for ruling party candidate Norman Nyirenda. Two other candidates won fewer votes.
Nyirenda's campaign director charged that Chihana had been campaigning during Tuesday's vote.
"We acknowledge receipt of complaints from various parties but those alleged irregularities cannot affect the results," said the commission chairwoman, Judge Anastasia Msosa.
Mutharika has twice been democratically elected but has reacted to opposition with growing authoritarianism that has led international donors to freeze some $750 million in much-needed aid this year. Malawi depends on aid money for some 40 percent of its budget.
Mutharika gave the task of mending fences with donors including the U.S., former colonizer Britain and the International Monetary Fund to his younger brother, academic Peter Mutharika, moving him from education and making him the new foreign affairs minister. Peter Mutharika was accused of restricting academic freedom while education minister.
Also on the Cabinet list is First Lady Callista Mutharika, though she is not assigned any ministerial post. Mutharika made his wife national coordinator for maternal, infant and child health in the presidency. In the July demonstrations, civil society leaders had demanded she be stripped of a large salary, saying she should not be paid for her charity work.
Mutharika did not include in his Cabinet list his estranged Vice President Joyce Banda though constitutionally he has no powers to fire her.