Battle for political soul of the centre and northern Malawi

The Political Hegemony of the Centre and North, 1994 – 2009

Malawian politics since the advent of plural democracy in 1994 has largely been defined by dominance of a particular political party to a particular region – Centre (Malawi Congress Party), North (Alliance For Democracy) and South (United Democratic Front) – with the only exception being 2004 (especially in the case of the northern region) and 2009 (in the case of both central and northern regions).

This shift started with AFORD in 2004, when the party lost control of northern region, after its erstwhile demigod-leader Chakufwa Thom Chihana abandoned presidential ambitions against the perceived wishes of his northern constituency, to support a candidate hitherto difficult to market in the battle to succeed Bakili Muluzi and the UDF.

Chakufwa Chihana’s move while strategic, deduced by his aging personal life and dwindling chances to ever win the presidency in the ethnicised country, was insensitive to his northern constituency interested in rallying around one of their own to the highest office of the presidency – either in the incumbency or running-mate status – just like the residents of the other two regions were also doing.

Flashback: Opposiiton leader John Tembo, late President Bingu wa Mutharika and ex-president Bakili Muluzi

Chakufwa Chihana created two dilemmas for his constituency: he was identifying himself with the UDF party, the party his northern constituency detested and one he himself loved to hate; and secondly, his own comments for removing himself out of the 2004 presidential or running-mate races where UDF featured Bingu wa Mutharika for presidency and Kaka Cassim Chilumpha for running mate was the last straw coupled with his (in) famous remarks seen as demeaning not only to his personality, but also to a band of his hero-worshppers: ‘imwi banthu bakumpoto, ini ndimuvumburirani sono; ndingaba presidenti wacharo chino yaye, ndini wabefu, kweni uyu Bingo’. This saw the the northern constituency rallying around – Aleke Kadonaphani Banda, who joined hands with Gwandanguluwe Chakuamba, then not a stranger to the northern region political psyche.

But beyond 2004, the only opposition to write home became the MCP under John Zenus Ungapake Tembo. But when the presidency was stolen from the UDF by Bingu wa Mutharika who had broken ranks to found his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), this endeared Bingu to the 60% plus Malawians who had rejected him for fear of electing a Bakili Muluzi puppet, after Muluzi’s bid for a third-term presidency was thwarted. But once Bingu proved to be his own man, he quickly captured the imagination of Malawians; he penetrated and ate away the constituencies that until then were identified by other parties in the central and northern territories.

Actually what we knew as independent parties in the north and south had already joined ranks with UDF of Mutharika even long before he left for DPP.  As a lone opposition voice, MCP began to fight the popular government of DPP but began to crumble – with the Binton Kuntsairas breaking ranks to join DPP. Thus when 2009 came, MCP became a shell of its former self and both the centre and the north’s political hegemony virtually collapsed – as they became political concubines of a stronger party, the DPP. Many Malawians celebrated the end of ethnicised politics until power intoxicated Bingu and the DPP, and reversed the gains of hope and trust of oneness that was growing among Malawians.

Following Bingu’s exit in death, and the coming in of People’s Party (PP), I ask myself: is the politics of regional hegemony past us? With the weakened ‘strong-party/strong-man’ political hegemony of the centre and north, at the time when that of the south is ever rising, will the political dry bones of the centre and north rise again? Will political parties emerge from the centre and north and play a national/regional see-saw at par with the south? I have a yes and no answer to the greater meaning of the questions.

Those who lived to witness the 1994-2004 politics believe that government worked better with a polarized parliament; and this was again proved right in Bingu wa Mutharika’s first term in office. Thus those still in love with the ‘strong-party/strong-man’ scenario, as a way of looking at things, shall work to see that the dry bones of political hegemony in the centre and north rise again.

Centre, who are The Potential Hegemony Builders?

In the central region, MCP still remains the favourite to rally its constituency around it; but the only threat to the political hegemony resuscitators is the fact that the total man in the centre JZUT, the image of MCP, is for analytical purposes sharing the bed with PP. Thus it will have to take a revolution within MCP to remove Tembo and detach MCP from a relationship of conflict of interest with PP, for the 2014 race. Failure to do so, political hegemony will be elusive.

But for the sake of age, it would seem that Tembo like Chakufwa Chihana in 2004 has his personal life interests to take care of; thus he may suspend his presidential ambitions for the sake of PP and, in the process, hibernate the MCP. Of course another hegemony builder concerns personalities who can lead MCP and central region beyond the JZU shadow. Is there anybody who can lead the region enough to capture the imaginations of potential voters as Tembo? Some names have been mentioned such as:  Edwin Banda, Chris Daza, Joda Kanjere and such others.

Others would still consider such people as Clement Stambuli, Hetherwick Ntaba, Jumani Masauko Kamuzu Banda, Justin Malewezi and Louis Chimango as potential candidates. As long as Tembo lives, whoever the personality would need JZU’s blessings to lead. Whatever the 2014 case, central region has an advantage of being the only region with virtually one active political party against the North and South which have scores. Thus as other regions worry of splitting the votes among many parties and candidates; MCP only stands to split the votes with the ruling party PP at most.

North, who are The Potential Hegemony Builders?

While central and southern political hegemony can be considered relatively strong, that of the north is dwindling – making others claim it is the only democratic region of the three in Malawi, for at least voting for candidates whose political bases are elsewhere. In my case, I take it to be because of the region’s failure to talk with a singular voice but also to produce a personality of the Chihana enigma for the people to rally around; and also for perpetually failing to feature a candidate of the Chihana type on the ballot paper for the presidency.

The closest presidential position the region has aspired for since 1994, using a stronger candidate with north as a base, is the position of running-mate in an alliance. This was the case in 1999’s Gwanda-Chakufwa alliance; 2004’s Gwanda-Aleke alliance and total disintegration in the 2009 general elections. Those that took up the reins of power from Chihana have lacked that spark to inspire the region; others have been compromised by unstable, unprincipled political behaviour.

The north’s unity challenges has further been compounded by too many parties and presidential candidates chasing for votes in an already low voter populated area making the voters in the region go for the most likely electable candidates, who have happened to be those from other bases. Previously we have had Kamuzu Chibambo, Dindi Gowa Nyasulu, Kamlepo Kalua, Loveness Gondwe and James Nyondo. To these is now added Chizankufwa Richard Msowoya of PDM. How can political hegemony be achieved where each one of these wants to go it alone?

Already, the perception now is that all the parties – with the exception of NASAF, Petra and PDM are in bed with PP. With the ideologies of NASAF and Petra different from that of Richard Msowoya, Loveness Gondwe, Harry Mkandawire, Beatrice Mwale, Peter Chihana and Msenga Mulungu’s inspired PDM – proponents for a federal Malawi, whither political hegemony of the north? Who stands a better chance to electrify the political soul of the northern constituency come 2014? On face analysis, it would seem that PP has a head-start on a few factors: the incumbency factor, the semi-ethnic factor of JB combined with Kachali and financial factor. But assuming the federal system ideology being pushed forward by PDM is found attractive above everything else, and with the right faces to champion it, then this may change the voter dynamics of the north come 2014 and with it the political hegemony of the region.

A Tough 2014 Campaign Ahead

From the foregoing, I can see a tough campaign in 2014 where Goliaths may remain Goliaths and where Davids may emerge ahead of Goliaths. The south has an interesting scenario of having two major contenders for the political soul of the region: Joyce Banda and Peter Mutharika. If book-makers can add to the fore slumbering Atupele Muluzi, Friday Jumbe, Gwanda Chakuamba and pseudo-centraller characters of Katsonga brothers, division mathematics provides a crowded picture. In short, it may be premature to call for any candidate unless alliances emerge to provide a discrimination factor.

For this reason, both JB and PM have a head-start. In the central region, while we may place JB as a darling, how leadership and events pan out in MCP between now and 2014 may provide a hint on the battle of the political soul of the centre. Finally, while the north can be seen as an orphaned region, without a true political unifying vehicle; this scenario shall not remain permanent.  The battle for the political soul of the north will not be in issues alone but also in the ideology that gives hope to end the perceived underdog status that ruling political parties have previously employed to relegate the region and the feeling one often gets from there – that they are loved, used and then abused like a condom.

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