Africa Confidential report tips JB to win: ‘Clash of the dynasties’ in Malawi polls

In general elections that promise to be the closest ever, the President is battling candidates who seek to return their families to power. Seven-and-a-half million Malawians go to the polls on 20 May for only the fourth time since multi-party democracy began in 1994 and it promises to be the closest contest yet.

President Joyce Banda, standing on her People’s Party (PP) ticket, faces ten other candidates from 53 registered parties. This is her first electoral test since succeeding to the presidency following the byzantine intrigue over the death of President Bingu wa Mutharika in April 2012. Banda’s main competition for the presidency comes from three directions.

First is the party that was once the only legal political organisation, the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), which is led into the arena by the former Assemblies of God President, Lazarus Chakwera, who came to politics only last August. Atupele Muluzi, son of the country’s President from 1994 to 2004, Bakili Muluzi, leads the United Democratic Front . Professor Peter Mutharika, brother of the late President Mutharika, stands for the Democratic Progressive Party.

Malawi presidential hopefuls: Atupele, JB, Chakwera and Mutharika

Malawi presidential hopefuls: Atupele, JB, Chakwera and Mutharika

The election campaign, dubbed the ‘battle of the families’, has been relatively peaceful although two people were killed in the DPP stronghold of Thyolo, where a mob killed a police officer who had shot people causing disruption as President Banda addressed a rally. Banda’s campaign is well funded and well organised. Added to the advantages of incumbency, her lavish spending and free hand-outs work strongly in her favour. Her staff are confident that rural electors, especially women, will deliver enough votes to counter what is expected to be a poorer showing in the towns.

Banda is expected to do best in the Northern Region, where the PP has most of its heavyweights, along the lake-shore districts of Nkhotakota, Salima and parts of Kasungu, Ntchisi and Mchinji in the Central Region. Her running mate, the former Trade and Industry Minister, Sosten Gwengwe, is forecast to make a mark in his home district of Dedza. And in Southern Region, Banda will gain votes mainly from her home district of Zomba, Balaka and parts of Mangochi.

Yet the Cashgate and private jet scandals have hit Banda’s vote in the towns and urban Lilongwe may now well go to the MCP, while Blantyre voters are likely to be evenly split between the DPP and UDF. Her biggest vote is expected to come from rural women who have benefited from her gifts of cattle to individual families as well as other livestock, grain, motorbikes and housing schemes for the poor. The President’s largesse also extends to a national football tournament and charity schools.

Banda’s appeal to female voters may be clear but the other major parties have done nothing to meet the gender challenge. None have selected female running mates for the presidential candidate, preferring to compete instead for the vote of young men, a very large but electorally volatile group. That leaves Banda free to appear as the only champion of women, who are slightly more than half of the eligible electors.

Minority government

If the President does win, her first term will be hindered by the lack of a majority in parliament, where it is unlikely her party will win more than about 60-70 seats of 193. However, many independents are predicted to win and the remaining parties are diverse enough to make one-off deals likely in exchange for support of legislation.

Although Chakwera presents a powerful challenge, mobilising many devoutly Christian citizens, the 58-year-old political newcomer has failed to develop a sound organisation outside his base in Central Region. In the past, the MCP has been able to raise a good one million votes in Central Region but the DPP’s superior machinery made heavy inroads here at the last elections. Even so, the MCP could poll around 30% there.

Banda, Mutharika and Muluzi all have running mates from Central Region and this will may cancel out Chakwera’s challenge. He lacks a team of dedicated electoral strategists and his party has failed to put up candidates in 35 seats. In close elections, a good showing in the most populous region, Southern, is always thought essential. Chakwera’s campaign lacks imagination and has not capitalised on the excitement that greeted his winning the MCP nomination.

The main strength of the DPP lies in the Lhomwe ethnic vote in its Southern Region stronghold districts of Mulanje, Phalombe and Thyolo. Mutharika has lost the support of some party activists in Central Region. Instead, they are focusing on the parliamentary elections because they are bitter about their leader’s choice of Saulos Klaus Chilima as his running mate, instead of a prominent figure such as DPP Vice-President Hetherwick Ntaba or Secretary General Jean Kalirani. Chilima, an economist, has since resigned as head of telecommunications firm Airtel Malawi.

Another handicap is the open ethnic discrimination practised under Mutharika’s late brother’s government, not to mention restrictions on free speech, the shooting of demonstrators and other unpopular policies. The fact that Peter did not make his mark when he held, separately, the portfolios of Justice, Foreign Affairs and Education is likely to hurt his chances, too. Yet possibly his two biggest challenges concern the long-time American resident’s inability to speak Chichewa fluently or to respond effectively to whispers about his sexual orientation. He made the tactical error of denying to the online newspaper Malawi Voice that he was gay. That succeeded only in increasing speculation.

However, Mutharika’s fortunes improved considerably on 12 May when Vice-President Khumbo Kachali, whom Banda had passed over for consideration as her running mate, crossed over and rejoined the DPP. Kachali has long been a highly influential Northern Province political heavyweight and has belonged to all the governing parties.

UDF presidential candidate Muluzi is 35 and hoping to marshal the youth vote. The party is expected to do well in Machinga and parts of Mangochi and could be a force in towns. However, Muluzi has inherited a rundown party from his father and suffers from a perception that his father, who was born in Machinga, is using him as a back door to regaining the presidency.

Briefcase parties

Other candidates include the Katsonga stepbrothers Mark and Davies, who are candidates for two ‘briefcase parties’, respectively the People’s Progressive Movement and Chipani Cha Pfuko. Mark Katsonga Phiri is a wealthy businessman running transport, mail and poultry businesses and Davies Chester Katsonga is a former Speaker of Parliament and cabinet minister under President Mutharika.

The only other woman on the ballot apart from Banda is Abusa Helen Singh, widow of a wealthy businessman, who is running for her own United Independence Party. Former cabinet minister Friday Jumbe will represent the New Labour Party and John Chisi, a College of Medicine Professor of Experimental Pathology, is standing for the Umodzi Party. Businessman George Mnesa is running under the banner of the Tisintha Alliance.

All the presidential candidates except Banda have attended debates supported by the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, which is backed by the billionaire philanthropist George Soros. Observers did not much rate the three debates and Banda’s absence was clearly damaging for the other candidates – it put her above the fray and thus, in command.

  • Africa Confidential is one of the longest-established specialist publications on Africa, with a considerable reputation for being first with in-depth news and analysis on significant political, economic and security developments across the continent.
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