What would you consider to be the best way of spending K1million? And if you knew seven people, each with K1million kwacha to spare, what would you advise them to spend it on?
K1million is the amount of money the Malawi Electoral Commission (Mec) was demanding from anyone willing to contest as president in the May 20 Tripartite Elections. K7million is the combined amount of money paid by seven presidential hopefuls who most of us thought – from the onset – did not have a chance of emerging victorious in the presidential vote.
Indeed, Kamuzu Chibambo, Mark Katsonga Phiri, Prof. John Chisi, George Nnesa, James Nyondo, Abusa Helen Singh, Friday Jumbe and Davis Katsonga were each on the presidential ballot but together they polled less than 90,000 votes or less than 2 percent of all valid votes cast.
No one can say they are shocked, even surprised, that this septet lost. Even before we voted, it was obvious none of these was going to win. What convinced them to go ahead and contest the presidential election, and to part with a whopping K1million remains a mystery to me. Surely, they could have put that money to better, more productive use somewhere.
While we have to accept that it is within everybody’s right to do with their money as they please, I guess there are many things each of the seven could have done with their money. But they chose to give it to away, as it were, who can blame them?
I am of the view, however, that we could have had better elections without these seven eminent Malawians choosing to be ‘wopelekeza’ candidates in the presidential election. We could have had a less complicated ballot paper with fewer names than the 12 we ended up with.
We would also have had a much better presidential debate with just four (three with Joyce Banda absconding) and the debates would have been much more informative and enlightening to the voters.
This was not the first time when we had ‘opelekeza’ (weak or inconsequential) candidates in a presidential election in Malawi.
In 1994, we had Kamlepo Kalua of the Malawi Democratic Party (MDP), who competed against main contenders at the time, Bakili Muluzi of the United Democratic Front (UDF), Hastings Kamuzu Banda of Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and Thom Chakufwa Chihana of the Alliance for Democracy (AFORD). In that election, Kamlepo Kalua – the ‘wopelekeza’ candidate – got less than one percent of the votes.
The subsequent elections in 1999 had two main contenders in Bakili Muluzi (UDF) and Gwanda Chakuamba (MCP. We had ‘opelekeza’ candidates namely Kamlepo Kalua, Bishop Daniel Nkhumbwe of the Congress for National Unity (CONU) and Bingu wa Mutharika of the United Party (UP) who together polled just two percent of votes.
Five years later, in 2004, it was something of three-horse race featuring Bingu wa Mutharika, who had – by this time – disbanded his rag tag party to join then ruling UDF, John Tembo of the MCP and Chakuamba, who was now president of the then newly-formed Republican Party (RP) but represented what was called the Mgwirizano Coalition in the presidential election.
This time ‘wopelekeza’ candidates were fairly strong. Brown Mpinganjira of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) managed a respectable eight percent while the last candidate, Justin Malewezi, as an independent candidate, managed to get two percent of the total votes.
Come 2009 we were back to two main contenders in Bingu wa Mutharika and John Tembo who together won at least 97 percent of total votes but five candidates, namely Kamuzu Chibambo, Stanley Masauli, Loveness Gondwe, James Nyondo and Dindi Gowa Nyasulu chose to participate as ‘wopelekeza’. Together they polled less than 3 percent.
Masauli and Dindi Gowa Nyasulu are, sadly, no longer in this world.
But Loveness Gondwe chose, perhaps rightly, not to contest this year’s presidential election. However, Kamuzu Chibambo and James Nyondo were back on the ballot and again they were insignificant candidates.
In fact the two got even less votes than they did in the previous election.
Chibambo amassed 35,213 votes five years ago, but received only 19,360 in this year’s election. On his part, Nyondo got 10,623 votes this year, down from 20,101 five years ago.
There are many people who would like to be president of this country.
Chibambo, Nyondo and may be many others will probably be back in 2019 when we go the polls again.
It is within their right to seek serve the country in any capacity. But I am of the view that one of the areas we should aim to improve for our future elections is the introduction of some kind of ‘preliminary’ process for persons seeking to contest the presidential election. We should mandate Mec to develop some kind criteria for sieving weak candidates.
We cannot continue to allow every Jim and Jack, as long as they have a million bucks to burn, to find their way on the ballot. Presidential Elections are serious business and must be treated as such. Let us find a way of having only those candidates that are serious and have a fair chance of winning to participate.
We could, for example say, for a party to contest presidential election, it must demonstrate some level of national support through having parliamentary candidates in more than 50 percent of constituencies.
If that had been the criteria in that last election, the seven ‘wopelekeza’ candidates would have been weeded and not allowed to just add numbers and, in process, confuse the electorate.
And they could have kept their money too!
*Jegwa Kumwenda is a journalist and National Coordinator of the Free Expression Institute