I wager not a whole lot of us remember the contents of our political party platforms from the last general election? I reckon few party activists, even members of national executive committees, are conversant with details of their respective parties’ constitutions. As for the general public knowing this literature in detail, forget about it!
Malawi’s political parties are best known by the region where they have their highest popularity and by who the leader is. Party identity independent of these parameters is practically non-existent. If an alien landed at Lilongwe today he would be hard pressed to know the ideological differences to base his political choice on among the available options.
All parties say they want development, security, democracy, prosperity and peace. What we can’t quite discern are their specific and unique approaches for achieving these goals. In the western democracies which we try to emulate, they usually have parties of the left, the centre-left, the centre, the centre-right and the right based on their respective approaches on economy, finance, social policy and constitutional interpretation.
If parties don’t each have their own unique approaches to Malawi’s issues, why do they exist separately from one another? A stochastic approach to dealing with serious national issues cannot provide durable solutions.
Opposition parties included
Even the approach and methods of opposition parties ought to be based on broader ideological principles. Once those philosophies are established, parties ought to stand for, uphold and defend them even when they are in opposition.
For example, when the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) was established around 1960 as a successor organisation to the Nyasaland African Congress, its identity and agenda were clear. It was a nationalist party aimed at both abolishing the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland and bringing about politically independence. The MCP directed all its political activity towards the achievement of these goals. Note that in those years it was not a governing party. And yet by 1964 it had achieved both its objectives. Of course what it did with power once the nation got independence is another discussion for another day.
Similarly from1990 to 1993 the United Democratic Front (UDF) was not an opposition party. There were no opposition parties allowed at the time. But the UDF and others worked effectively and achieved their objectives in large part because their aims were clear and coherent. The UDF wanted to abolish dictatorship and bring about both multi-party democracy and economic liberalisation.
Between the time the UDF gained power in 1994 and the time they left office in 2004, both multiparty democracy and a liberalised economy were facts of Malawi life. The icing on the cake was the introduction of free primary education.
The point is not whether a liberalised economy, multi-party democracy and free primary education have been beneficial to Malawi. The point is that these were achieved in large part because of the clear-eyed and coherent vision of the party that brought them about.
Parties are at their most effective when they have a clear philosophical or ideological identity and a clear agenda for promoting their vision.
Opposition parties today are part of the power structure. They are represented in Parliament and therefore in a position to leverage influence. They have access to the media and various podiums from which to influence public opinion. Most importantly, they have access to their own constituents whom they represent in Parliament. Therefore the belief that only when a party is actually heading government can it promote its agenda is grist for cynicism and insouciance.
Campaign platforms have become goods waiting to be jettisoned by governing parties. They always say they anticipated more resources before they entered government and instead inherited coffers depleted by the previous regime. They offer this as the reason they cannot fulfil their campaign promises. For their part, opposition parties always justify their ineffectiveness by saying they are not the governing party and therefore cannot implement anything. Excuses, excuses, excuses. The example of the MCP between 1960 and 1964; and the UDF between 1990 and 1994 belies these excuses.
Campaign promises are not only being ignored by the parties, they are also largely forgotten by those whose job it is to keep the parties honest. The media, pressure groups and ordinary citizens have also forgotten them. The result is that parties both in government and opposition are not adequately held accountable for their respective failures to live up to their campaign commitments.
The way a party governs or opposes is more effective if it is based on well established, coherent, and continually advertised party principles. These are the very ideological identity of the party, its raison d’etre. The challenge for parties today is to each forge a clear identity not based on region of popularity. I am waiting to see which part will be the first to emerge with strongly-held and well advertised moorings in principle that differentiate it from the next and from the rest.
On the other hand, parties shouldn’t stand for everything. That is ideological polygamy and it contributes to the political ineffectiveness we see in Malawi today.
- The author, Tom Likambale, is from Balaka Township, Malawi.