21 February, 2014

Choice of Running Mates: The Folly That is Malawi’s Politics Ahead of 2014 Elections

by Harvey C.C. Banda

Malawi will hold tripartite general elections in May 2014, when Malawians will democratically elect leaders in three positions: the President, Members of Parliament for the constituencies, and Councilors for the various wards. Malawi has been without Councilors for more than ten years. As is the case in most countries, the run-up to the general elections is full of drama, that is, both tragedies and comedies. But suffice to say that the 2014 tripartite elections have broken a record: all the four deemed major political parties (Malawi Congress Party (MCP), Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the ruling People’s Party (PP), and the once-mighty United Democratic Party (UDF) of former President Bakili Muluzi) have taken their turns in goofing (hitting a snag) when choosing the Presidential running mates. This has been a surprise and a disappointment both to political heavyweights within those parties, who have remained expectant long enough, and to the onlookers and party sympathizers, alike. It is astonishing and paradoxical to note that the so-called briefcase parties have shown maturity and sobriety in choosing Presidential running mates.

The Malawi Congress Party ruled Malawi between 1964 (independence) and 1994 (when Malawi espoused pluralist and democratic politics). Thereafter the affairs of the Government were in the hands of the UDF under Bakili Muluzi. The latter ruled Malawi for a solid ten years and handed over power to Professor Bingu Wa Mutharika in 2004. Immediately after this (in 2005) Mutharika ditched the UDF and formed his own party, the DPP. Despite coming in as a political novice, Mutharika won the hearts of many Malawians, especially during his first term of office (2004 – 2009) to the point that in 2009 he was rewarded with a landslide victory. During this period, Mutharika won accolades and awards at home and abroad for his transformation of Malawi’s weak economy. However, as we are aware, he failed to outlive his second term of office, dying in April 2012.

In 2009 Mutharika handpicked Joyce Banda as his running mate, clearly targeting the female vote as part of his elections strategy. In fact, this paid dividends during the 2009 general elections: as alluded to earlier, the DPP won by a wide margin. Following the demise of Mutharika, Joyce Banda assumed the Presidency in line with the Malawi Constitution. She settled for Khumbo Kachali as her deputy. Kachali comes from the northern region while Banda comes from the southern region.

Just before Mutharika’s untimely death, there was antagonism between the President and his deputy to the extent of the latter forming her own political party thereafter, the flamboyant, but clearly politically-inexperienced PP. In fact, the only major attraction of the PP is its ruling status: the party had no political structures, and a weak support base..

It is worth noting that the ruling PP inherited all the challenges that the DPP and Mutharika left behind. And yet, through thick and thin, the PP has tried to sail through to the 2014 tripartite elections. Joyce Banda has managed to deal with the political storms with Khumbo Kachali by her side.

However, in a sudden twist of events, all in the name of elections strategy, President Joyce Banda has dumped her two-year political partner, Kachali, choosing instead a political 'child', thirty-seven year old Sosten Gwengwe, as her running mate. Gwengwe is nowhere on the list of political heavyweights in Malawi’s politics. It is, therefore, not surprising that Kachali has taken this as a bitter pill to swallow, and was “conspicuously absent” during the (Gwengwe) running mate unveiling ceremony at the prestigious Sanjika Palace in Blantyre, Malawi’s famed commercial city on 13 February 2014.

President Banda and her young running mate (Photo: Maravi Post)

In a related development, the rate of attrition of political heavyweights from the ruling PP is shocking. Recently, Sidik Mia, a political magnet in the Lower Shire Valley (Chikwawa) region dumped the party due to so-called personal reasons. Strictly-speaking, this was a result of political frustration within the party. PP also lost a large number of loyal members over the way it conducted primary elections for Members of Parliament in December 2013. From these elections it was apparent that the people in a constituency had their own choice while the party tried to impose (to no avail) its own favourite, hence massive resignations. Consequently, one is left wondering as to the political stamina that PP still wields ahead of the May elections.

Another shocker in the choice of Presidential running mates is that by the DPP, a party formed and popularized by Bingu Wa Mutharika and now led, somewhat weakly, by his younger brother, Peter Mutharika. The latter on 10 February 2014 unveiled the politically unknown Saulos Chilima, who until his appointment was the Managing Director of mobile phone company Airtel Malawi. One wonders whether the economics attributes that Chilima have are in anyway transferable to Malawi’s politics! This is clearly another choice of a youth as part of the elections strategy.

The last comedy is displayed by the United Democratic Front (UDF). With the latter the opposite is actually true. A youthful Presidential candidate, Atupele Muluzi, son of former President Bakili Muluzi, recently settled for somewhat-aged George Chapola as his running mate. Both (Atupele and Chapola) have glaring political weaknesses, most notably an overall lack of political muscle, so that their pairing up is simply worsening their case as far as the May 2014 Presidential elections are concerned.

The MCP should be accorded the benefit of doubt under the tutelage of Dr. Lazarus Chakwera, who was elected during the fiercely-contested convention held in 2013. The MCP settled for Richard Msowoya, a northerner from Karonga District. Msowoya has worthwhile political mileage having been in politics for quite some time. Chakwera comes from the central region district of Dowa. Bearing in mind that Malawi’s politics is played mainly along regional lines, the MCP has a weak hold in the populous southern region. In this case, the party has to ‘crack its head’ and come up with a befitting political gimmick if it is to sail through the coming elections.

As can be depicted from the foregoing analysis, Malawi’s politics ahead of the May 2014 elections is marked by both tragedies and comedies: tragedies in that the political heavyweights are swept under the carpet in favour of what one might call ‘political toddlers’. All this is in the name of trying to secure the ‘youth’ vote. In the process potential political parties are, simply put, crumbling just before the elections (i.e. self-orchestrated defeat); comedies in that the whole process lacks seriousness and, therefore, displays political mediocrity of the highest order. This would be equated to junior primary school pupils doing stage-acting (playing adult roles, for example, in cooking, parenting, etc, what is locally dubbed vidimbiko in Chitumbuka (the popular language of northern Malawi) and masanje (in Chichewa of central Malawi))!

Ever heard of a dictum ‘politics is a crazy game’? If the answer is no, come to Malawi ahead of the general elections: crazy politicians busily making crazy decisions!

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