Chilima and Chakwera
First Petitioner Saulos Chilima and second Petitioner Lazarus Chakwera

One of the greatest barriers to progress is close-mindedness. It is tradition that makes us resistant to change and to new ideas. It is close-mindedness that channels our minds into safe familiar paths. Political dynamics, though, expect and demand that politicians should be prepared to assess the political landscape and make necessary changes within reason.

Not long ago, I categorically denounced the suggestion that the solution for the Malawi Congress Party and the UTM party in strategizing for victory in the fresh elections scheduled for 19 May 2020 would be a triumvirate alliance that brought in Dr. Saulosi Chilima of UTM as Prime Minister to a presidential ticket of Dr. Lazarus Chakwera and Sidik Mia. The person who proposed this setup must be commended for thinking outside the box. It is this kind of out-of-the-box thinking that creates progress. It is important, however to keep such creative thinking within reason, and my objections to the suggestion was based simply on the fact that there is no need to create unnecessary constitutional quandaries when there are other more tenable possibilities that could be explored.

While it is obvious to both MCP and UTM that in order to achieve the required majority in the coming elections they need to work together, it seems what is making the waters rather murky is the question of how such a working together arrangement can be conceived. The debate and the contest have circled around the presidential ticket, and the question of who should be the candidate and who should be the running mate, and an accompanying question of what would happen to the two leaders previous running mates.

Persuasive arguments have been made for Chilima to be the candidate, and equally persuasive arguments have been made for Chakwera to be the candidate. I have even heard arguments for Chilima not to even be Chakwera’s running mate but to be given some other ministerial role, as in the triumvirate suggestion debunked above. 

It has dawned upon me that the real barrier to the idea of MCP and UTM working together is not so much a question of the individuals but the identities of the two entities. It is the fear of one party losing its identity as it is swallowed by the other or vice versa. The other barrier is the fear of betrayal; the possibility that the alliance will end as soon as victory is achieved, the two parties will become enemies and all pre-election promises and agreements will be broken.

Late Bingu

These are not unjustified fears. Late Bingu wa Mutharika created a bad precedent of betrayal when he dumped the UDF and created his own party, the DPP, soon after winning an election on a UDF ticket in 2004.

For this reason, I wish to propose the alternative of a party merger. It has been a long-held understanding to political scientists that contextual factors at the social level affect all parties in the party system. Such conditions include various social characteristics and events (social-demographic, economic, cultural or political). Examples are secularization and depolarizations, or an economic decline or boom. Other contextual factors refer to the political party system, the electoral system (majoritarian or proportional), and electoral rules such as the provision of public funding, and the electoral threshold.

These political factors are highly relevant for the concept of political party merger because they trigger re-assessment of parties’ strategies and consequently influence the probability and the necessity that parties merge. For example, if parties have little chance of being elected due to high electoral thresholds, the high thresholds may deter parties to compete by themselves in elections. Consequently, parties must in such circumstances sacrifice their traditions and take the idea of a merger more easily into consideration.

Now, the 50+1 vote majority requirement enunciated by the constitutional court essentially turned our voting system into one that will from now be characterized by a high electoral threshold. This necessitates a rethink in how we approach our politics, not just in terms of the forthcoming fresh elections but in perpetuity. A short-term solution such as a simple electoral alliance is bound to be fraught with accompanying problems both before and especially after the electoral victory to the extent that it might indeed end up being creator of problems rather than a solver, and give whoever ends up leading such headaches that he or she is unable to focus on leading the nation at all.

The option of a party merger, on the other hand, creates a new identity for two parties and creates one pillar and one umbrella for the two entities to fall under and defend. Ownership perspective changes from “us and them” to “we, together”, and as a result, the possibilities of betrayal, and the infighting are minimized if not eliminated. A new identity creates a sense of belonging to the two entities and changes the whole identity dynamic considerably.  The leader becomes “our leader” for the two entities who have now become one, and such he cannot betray his own party.

Although party mergers are to a large extent traditionally determined by the similarity between the different potential merger parties, in modern times, ideological differences between the parties have shrunk and modern politics is largely driven simply by the similarity of goals and objectives. Thus, the aspects of similarity may include party ideology, party culture, the primary party goals, composition of the constituency and electoral evolution.

In the Malawian situation, this is particularly true. Although some may argue that MCP is a conservative party while UTM is liberal ideologically, not many would be able to sustain this argument if asked to explain how this ideological difference would be reflected in the way the two parties intend to improve the socio-economic fortunes of the country.

In my view, the similarity of the goals and objectives between MCP and UTM has reduced the possible ‘transaction costs’ of a party merger for both parties. If these two parties merge, their so-called different ideologies will not suffer much. All they will need to do is adapt their programs to one unified version. This adaptation will be negotiated between the party leaderships and between the factions of each party.

Discussing this option as a solution to the apparent alliance impasse between MCP and UTM, some perceptive minds have pointed out that the real challenge would not be so much the two parties merging than communicating such a merger to the electorate in the short time between now and the election. I admit that the time factor is a major one. However, I believe we are underestimating our electorate when we assume that they are so dull that they cannot understand a party merger.

If this is the very same electorate that for the past 8 months was able to follow constitutional court proceedings over the radio and fully understand what was happening, I question the merit of suggesting that in 3 months, they would be unable to grasp the idea that MCP and UTP have merged to form one party for the sake of forming a national party that will chart the course of Malawi for the future.

The other challenge is an old one. Old comforts are difficult to give up. In the new political arena that this “50 +1” requirement has created, though, I would caution those thinking traditionally that new ideas need to be embraced and tried, not dismissed off hand.

In this new Malawian political landscape, it is now a case of adapt or die.

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