Earlier this year, it seemed like the forthcoming 2019 general elections might give us the most exciting political convention events in decades.
In the Malawi Congress Party, there was a major tag of war over the leadership, with several individuals believing and being advised that they could be better leaders than the incumbent Lazarus Chakwera.
In a somewhat unprecedented development, former first lady Callista Mutharika shocked the nation and especially the Democratic Progressive Party by announcing that the notion of simply taking it for granted that incumbent president Peter Mutharika (her brother-in-law, no less) was foolhardy and destined to guarantee a DPP defeat in the 2019 polls.
So while as at the start for Peter Mutharika’s first term in 2014 it seemed almost a forgone conclusion that in 2019, DPP’s winning team of and Saulos Chilima would be having another face off with MCP’s Lazarus Chakwera, suddenly everything seemed to have fallen apart and all leadership positions seemed up for grabs.
We should have known better though. This is Malawi. Since when in Malawi did an incumbent leader of any party ever concede to either the edicts of democracy of reason to admit that they were, after all points were considered, not the best candidate to take their country to victory or to lead the Malawi nation to the next level of development?
The scenario, as it appeared to be taking shape around March this year, would have marked the first time in the history of the nation that the choice of any party presidential nominee was not more or less decided by the start of a convention. It would have meant that the delegates, whether those of DPP or of MCP, would have determined the outcome of the contest at the convention itself. Instead of the typical multi-day political advertisement, participants would have been forced to hash through the convention rules and bylaws to find their standard-bearer for 2019.
It was not to be.
Whatever the edicts of democracy we all wished the country’s representative political parties would uphold, it seems clear that the idea of genuine democratic choice in our political parties, the notion of giving the people the opportunity to really choose who they would like to represent them, is nothing but pure fiction.
In the case of the MCP, the current party president woke up one day and decided to call for a no-warning kangaroo convention that was always going to confirm him as leader and 2019 torch bearer in-spite of protests from senior party members, and indeed in spite of various legal challenges and disputes regarding its validity.
In the DPP, by the time Jeffrey wa Jeffrey, that party’s Secretary General, panicked and announced that the DPP will hold its convention sometime in June, all evidence that the event might adhere to any democratic principles had already been obliterated. A handful of staunch Mutharika supporters has already declared that that the outcome of their convention will be that Peter Mutharika will be returned as the torch bearer. Some have even suggested that anyone who goes to that convention with an intention to vote for someone else, especially Peter’s vice president Saulos Chilima as the one they prefer to be the party’s torchbearer will be prevented from attending the convention, or actually expelled from the event altogether.
So what we are learning is that when a person becomes a leader of a party, he will do anything to remain in that position even if it means defying any democratic principles, and that somehow, for this blatant defiance of the edicts of democracy which the people of this country sacrificed so much to obtain, somehow, such a leader will still have supporters shouting at the top of their voices that he or she if the best person to lead Malawi, a democratic nation.
The voting at the MCP convention predictably turned out to a foregone conclusion, and from the evidence of events unfolding in the DPP, it seems clear that even in a convention era marked by bitter intra-party divides, beleaguered leaders will simply resort to the rushed convention to protect their power from challenge.
Of course with the wrangles still prevailing in the DPP prior to their convention, perhaps all hope of a properly contested leadership selection is not yet lost in the DPP. But I’m not holding my breath.
It is probaly too soon to know how this lack of tolerance for challengers will play out in future election cycles. But conventions are supposed to be shaped and influenced by a combination of changing party needs and evolving national priorities. Observing the way the MCP dealt with the issue of their convention, and seeing how the DPP is now following the same modus operandi, it is reasonable to surmise that not only is the economic future of Malawi under siege by power-hungry politicians, but now even the future of democracy itself is uncertain.
Conventions are not supposed to be simply party advertising opportunities. They are supposed to be serious democratic fora for real intra-party decision-making. This is a function of the combination of forces that have shaped political The poverty perpetuated by failures in the economic development of the nation, however, have clearly sabotaged the rules determining the nomination process, the level of tolerance of differing opinions within the parties, and the dynamics governing intra-party political discourse.
Once politicians realized they could use conventions to legitimise their hunger for power through bribes and other unethical manipulations, they started seeking more control over the individuals and the general opinions of the convention itself. Now, any opposition is deemed as posing a large risks in terms of the image the party and any given incumbent candidate and any voices suggesting alternative, even more viable potential candidates are ruthlessly silenced.
The same forces are at work going into the 2019 elections. Much has been made this year about conventions, especially on the MCP side, as their convention seems to have solved for a time. And, had the score been a bit closer, every convention rule determination would have had the potential to make or break one or more of the candidates. While it does not look likely that either party will have an open or contested convention this year, both sides are dealing with bitter intra-party division and risk getting exposed for failing the democratisation process.
Both the MCP and the DPP have seen some brutal public squabbling between the so-called “establishment” candidates and the “outsiders” this year. Going into the convention that their Secretary General announced unceremoniously recently, the DPP in particular faces the challenge of a highly divisive, ageing candidate whose very appeal seems to rest on his passiveness and predictability. The power of the party apparatus has been significantly diminished, especially as individuals determined to protect and promote themselves and not the country at large support the presumptive DPP nominee.
Though it is unlikely to be a contested convention, the recently announced DPP convention coming in June will likely prove intense and surprising. Without the ability to predict or control the message and feel of the convention, and with bitter divisions very much unresolved within the party, the DPP will most likely revert to hosting a convention that again betray the democratic aspirations of the nation and prove once again that the country is going backwards politically.
Perhaps these beleaguered leaders with their rushed kangaroo conventions are another reason to add to my argument on-going submission that the political party model has failed this country and that Malawians need to wake up and throw out anyone claiming that political parties advance popular aspirations or represent the will of the people.