Written by AMBUJE CHE TOM LIKAMBALE
A relative quiet prevails before the storm on the competitive political scene in Malawi. Unobserved, however, the likely players are jostling for position and jockeying for advantage as the calendar advances inexorably towards May, 2014, the date of presidential, parliamentary and local assembly elections.
There are upwards of 30 registered political entities, some of them styled 'briefcase parties' because of their existence solely in the minds and briefcases of the leaders who registered them. I call them 'Bonya' parties for they tend to end up consumed by the larger parties, the bigger fish in the political waters. Cabinet minister Ralph Kasambara's Congress of Democrats (CoDe) is a current example. He is the party's President, but also Director of Legal Affairs in the governing People's Party (PP). The parties with a realistic chance of winning the presidency or gaining an impactful number of seats in Parliament are only four, namely: the PP of President Joyce Banda, the former governing United Democratic Front (UDF) of Austin Atupele Muluzi; the former governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of Arthur Peter Mutharika, and the former governing Malawi Congress Party (MCP) of Honorable John Zenus Ungapake Tembo.
Each of these has strengths and weaknesses. Malawi's parties are not separated by ideological differences. They differ mainly via the personalities and areas of origin of their leaders and, in some cases, in terms of their respective past records. The rare policy difference may creep in but, by and large, ballots are cast based on who's who and where they come from.
The People's Party of President Joyce Banda
Mrs. Banda and her party enjoy the advantage of incumbency. Malawians have voted out a sitting government only once in their electoral history: in the general elections of 1994 which ousted the MCP government of Ngwazi Dr. Kamuzu Banda. However, as there are no party funding rules nor campaign spending restrictions in Malawi, Mrs. Banda, as President, enjoys non-stop favourable coverage on state radio, TV and government publications. She is also backed by the full machinery of government, a powerful campaign backdrop in and of itself. As the person who sets the government's agenda, she therefore has the best chance to influence public discussion and shape public opinion. These advantages can go a long way towards ensuring her re-election.
Also following the breakdown in governance and widespread disrespect for the basic human rights of Malawians by the previous dictatorial regime of Bingu Mutharika (DPP), Mrs. Banda's positive reforms in that regard make her look like an angel to voters by comparison.
However she is also at the mercy of events, incumbency being a double-edged sword. She will receive the credit if things go well and will get the blame if things go south. The economy, buffetted by high inflation, is the number one issue on voters' minds now. Mrs. Banda's pleas for patience as she nurses it back to recovery are molested by her self-imposed deadline of 18 months since taking office for it to come out of intensive care. If, even for reasons outside her control, inflation does not ease in those 18 months, or before the campaign season kicks off for real, she could pay a high price at the polls.
Mrs. Banda's image is also hurt by her reliance on 'Section 65 Capricorns' and a Vice President with a poor public image. Section 65 Capricorns are parliamentarians and cabinet ministers who change political parties every time there is a new President in order to be appointed to, or remain, in cabinet or otherwise on the side of government of the day. Mrs. Banda has ministers, for example, who have served all three presidentials since the advent of multi-partyism. Unlike in the past, this time around many Malawians see these ministers as sell-outs with only the pursuit of money, privilege and power as their principle; not to mention the fact that, if they are Parliamentarians, they are also violators of S. 65 of the Constitution by continuing in their parliamentary seats after crossing the floor of the House from the parties under whose banners they entered Parliament to the new governing party.
Every new Malawian President since Kamuzu Banda has succumbed to this temptation to employ Capricorns for reasons of political expediency. A tale of antiquity warns aptly in this regard: A baby mosquito returned after its maiden flight. The mother asked how things had gone. The baby said, 'It was fantastic. People were clapping hands for me wherever I went.' The mother said, 'They weren't clapping hands, they were trying to kill you!' Similarly, a new President must know whom, among those clapping hands for her, are genuine friends. Some who are now in Mrs. Banda's corner contributed to the destruction of the Muluzi and Mutharika presidencies. It is hard to believe they will preserve Mrs. Banda's. By contrast, fresh talent from Malawi's large human pool could.
The United Democratic Front of Austin Atupele Muluzi
The rub on Austin Atupele Muluzi is that he is too young, at age 35 in August this year, to be President of the Republic. However, the Constitution allows a minimum age limit of 35 for one to qualify, agewise, to be President. Ironically, it is precisely his youth and alleged inexperience that is seen, especially by younger Malawians, as his greatest strength. He is seen to represent the best chance for a real change in the way politics is done, and governance approached, in the long suffering country. His 'Agenda for Change' slogan finds traction with Malawians, especially those under the age of fifty who are in the majority. He draws presidential crowds to his rallies and clearly inheritted his father's public speaking skills although he is seen as more reserved and cautious than Dr. Bakili Muluzi who governed Malawi as President between 1994 and 2004.
A cursory look at things as they stand now suggests that Austin Atupele Muluzi and his UDF offer the most credible single challenge to the re-election chances of Mrs. Banda and her PP if an election were held today. Some have suggested that, given his youth, Austin Atupele would make an ideal Vice Presidential candidate and therefore President-in-Waiting, if he teamed up with Mrs. Banda, replacing Vice President Khumbo Kachali. But Mrs. Banda and Atupele Muluzi are both considered as coming from the Eastern Region although Muluzi's mother is from the Central Region and Mrs. Banda is married in, and has relocated to, Nkhata Bay in the north. However, the mere fact that both are seen as coming from the East, and the fact that each party exudes confidence in its own ability to win solo, makes this political marriage unlikely.
The Democratic Progressive Party of Arthur Peter Mutharika
The DPP is the party of Malawi's most recent dictatorship and, in popular opinion, the author of Malawi's current economic hardships through the malevolence of its former leader, President Bingu Mutharika, who died suddenly last year. The new leader, Arthur Peter Mutharika, was beside his older brother when the latter sullied relations between Malawi and the IMF, Great Britain, other bilateral donors and neighbours, exacerbating the fiscal position of the Malawi Government and suffocating the economy. Arthur Peter was Chief Legal Advisor to his older brother, and later the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, as his brother flouted the Constitution to create the first Tsunami wave of Section 65 Capricorns.
Arthur Peter was Minister of Education when his older brother sparked a needless 'academic freedom' crisis at the University of Malawi, paralysing the institution for nine months. He was there as Bingu restarted the arbitrary detention of opposition politicians, recalcitrant vice presidents, party dissidents, consumer rights advocates, journalists, clergy and other civil society leaders. Bingu's governance and human rights record reached low points reminiscent of the days of one-party dictatorship under Kamuzu Banda and his MCP regime (1964-1994); and Arthur Peter was with Bingu all the way. Arthur Peter was with Bingu as Bingu's government embarrassed Malawians at home and internationally by attempting to introduce an anti-pollution law that, on the face of it, banned flatulence in public. As a consequence, Arthur Peter does not inspire the confidence of Malawians to be a desirable President, especially also given his unease in public and his tepid public speaking delivery.
About the only area where the DPP has a chance is its demonstrated desire to prosecute homosexuals. It was the Mutharika dictatorship which decided to enforce an archaic law banning gay acts by arresting a same-sex couple which had announced a public engagement. Malawi society being largely socially conservative, the DPP's homophobia finds resonance with the powerful churches and many voters, to the chagrin of liberals of my ilk. Unfairly, DPP propaganda suggests that Mrs. Banda has 'allowed' foreigners to make Malawi a gay-friendly country in exchange for aid. This is false. Mrs. Banda has simply said laws against gay acts are a matter for public discussion and for Parliament to review, if required. But all this is of no consequence. The DPP owns this issue and the majority in the public is behind them. This could translate into votes for the DPP in May next year. The DPP is also assured of support in the vote-rich 'Lomwe Belt' of Mulanje, Thyolo and Chiradzulu -- the party's stronghold. Arthur Peter comes from Thyolo.
The Malawi Congress Party of Hon. John Tembo
Hon. John Zenus U.Tembo is respected for his vast experience in running government and the economy under Kamuzu Banda and as the longest serving Member of Parliament in Malawi. His Presidential chances in 2014 are, however, threatened by divisions within his own party over his leadership. There are those in the party, and in the general public, who believe his time is past and that the MCP needs a fresh injection of youth or, at least, newness at the helm. Regardless, the party has its best chances in the parliamentary race in which it is sure to win seats in its riding-rich Central Region stronghold. The presidency, on the other hand, is a very long shot if the party's candidate remains this Dean of Parliamentarians who will turn 81 years old this year.
The Bonya Parties
Not all Bonya parties are created equal. Among them, watch for the Alliance for Democracy (AforD), founded by the legendary crusader against one-partyism, the late Chakufwa Chihana, to win some seats in the northern region, the party's traditional stronghold. The intrepid hero, however, left a party in disarray. Following the resignation and death of its most recent leader, Dindi Gowa Nyasulu, the party is now embroiled in a leadership wrangle; one faction led by leadership aspirant Dan Msowoya, and the other by cabinet minister in Mrs. Banda's government, Enoch Chihana, son of Chakufwa. Once that is settled, AforD could emerge with a number of parliamentary seats in 2014 in the north. And then it will be swallowed up by some big party.
Another Party, MaFunDe of George Nnensa, appears poised to keep its lone Balaka South seat occupied by Nnensa himself. He has so far resisted the temptation to be Bonya. The People's Progressive Movement (PPM) by contrast, led by Mark Katsonga Phiri, recently showed off supposed defectors from the PP. If that trend continues, the PPM could surprise us in this electoral season especially in the south-west. And then become food for bigger parties.
None of the above prognostications is certain. Politics is not an exact science and these predictions are more than likely to be defied by events. One day is a long time in politics. One week is an eternity, let alone one whole year. We are only certain that soon the competition will burst out into the open with campaign speeches, drums, whistles and vuvuzelas on the airwaves, at the watering holes and places of village palaver. In a few months' time, the Electoral Commission will say: let the games begin!
The author, Ambuje Che Likambale, is from Balaka Township, Malawi