Chakwera right on people-funded campaign: Malawi road to 2014

Malawi Congress Party (MCP) president Lazarus Chakwera’s call on followers to contribute K100 or more should be hailed as the best approach to campaign funding. Chakwera’s strategy marks the beginning of an era of people-funded political party activities rather than the current ‘big-man’ and ‘sole-financier’ model which is largely to blame for stifling Malawi’s democracy.  

And yet, critics have ganged up throwing insults at Chakwera and MCP equating the approach to former president late Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s awful desire for compulsory gifts. It is not and this is why. Kamuzu’s fundraising technique for MCP was based on forcing people to buy party cards, give donations including grabbing livestock: goats, cows and also eggs etc. Anyone who did not comply broke the four-cornerstones and was punished brutally.

In contrast, Chakwera is not forcing people to give money to MCP. Just as is the tradition in advanced democracies, the party is seeking to let its followers own and have a stake in the party’s 2014 electoral campaign. Lest we forget. For the past 20 years, the country’s multiparty democratic dispensation has been held up by the ‘big-men’ who by funding their political parties have had the exclusive right to own them as personal estates. This has supressed intra-party democracy and at election time curtailed the emergence of alternative leadership.

Chakwera:  MCP president
Chakwera: MCP president


More importantly, ruling parties have abused public funds to promote their supremacy, which has led to the suffocation of political opposition and demeaned the idea of the ‘opposition’ as a viable alternative – a government in waiting. During elections, the ground has always not been levelled a situation which has left the electorate with limited choice on who to vote for.

As it were, when Bakili Muluzi (with the UDF) came to power in 1994, he rebuked Kamuzu’s mandatory gifts and in its place introduced hand-outs which he gave himself in form of K50 notes and fat brown envelopes mainly as a bribe for political mobilisation and the buying of votes. Everyone wondered where Muluzi was getting the money? Unsubstantiated rumours flew around; government coffers were being swindled and the Reserve Bank of Malawi (RBM) was printing the ‘free’ notes.

A more plausible answer came after the 2004 elections when then president late Bingu wa Mutharika launched his anti-corruption crusade and started arresting UDF cadres on graft charges. The subsequent fallout between Mutharika and his former mentor and ex-president Muluzi unraveled the worst campaign funding syndicates. Angered by Mutharika’s resignation from the UDF, some senior party members revealed that [the party] had invested huge amounts of money in Mutharika’s campaign.

Muluzi and his inner circle thumped their chests as to how ungrateful Mutharika was to damp the party in February 2005 leaving it with an enormous debt to repay. Who did they expect to pay? The real drama unfolded when Mutharika moved in to arrest Muluzi on having embezzled public money and deposited the funds into his personal accounts amounting to K1.7 billion from Republic of China (Taiwan) Libya, etc. The money, meant for government, was also used in the campaign which UDF senior members put down to Mutharika being too difficult a candidate to sell. Though the party massively lost parliamentary seats.

In the 2004 campaign, the UDF was awash with yellow cars, caps, T-shirts, bicycles and their dancing women guild dressed good enough to scream lyo-lyo-lyo. Muluzi left power having equipped his party with a fleet of almost 100 duty-free vehicles aided by the Presidents Salary and Benefits Act. Only for the Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA) to impound them.  

Having been catapulted to power, thanks to public endowments, Mutharika himself found the DPP courtesy of the same public purse. A 2005 investigation by Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee exposed Mutharika as having presided over the involvement of then Secretary to Treasury Dr. Milton Kutengule and DPP top-officials in the creation of a bogus K20 million Credit Scheme Account in the Ministry of Finance aimed at financing the activities of his new party. In 2007, as Mutharika’s DPP administration was ‘persecuting’ Muluzi the Weekend Nation revealed that he had acquired five Nissan pick-ups duty-free which had become part of DPP fleet.

During the 2009 elections Mutharika modernized the DPP campaign with state-of-the-art Hammers, luxury coaches and screened automobile. After his death, Mutharika like Muluzi left MRA screeching its teeth in an attempt to confiscate 41 vehicles which he purchased duty free. But the High Court recently quashed MRA’s decision to seize the vehicles, at least in good time for the Road to 2014 campaign.  

Hence, Chakwera is right to seek an alternative way of campaign funding, be it Obama’s aggressive style, because MCP and other opposition parties have been financially disenfranchised. It has eroded their electoral platform and day-to-day operations. Due to lack of proper laws and guidelines on party funding, ruling parties have relied on incumbent advantage to use parastatal vehicles to ferry supporters around the country, slot campaign adverts and programmes on MBC and get business cronies who are corruptly awarded government contracts as anonymous donors.

This, in addition to diversion and embezzlement of big sums of public money from state coffers which is given to the people in small tokens whilst senior ruling party officials take the chunk to enrich themselves leaving the country orbiting the cycle of poverty. The inability of political parties’ to find modern, effective and creative ways to fund their operations is draining our democracy. It has been the main reason for the continued failure of separation between government and ruling parties: UDF, DPP and presently PP.

Lack of people-based party funding has also helped promote personality politics by allowing parties foster a cosmetic relationship with their membership. Members have remained voiceless and passive participants. Muluzi was thought (or he thought) he was the only credible candidate for the UDF until he handed the reigns to his son, Atupele Muluzi.

Though there is public funding for political parties that amass one tenth of the total electoral vote it is very minimal to sustain day-to-day operations more so expensive electoral campaigns. With a fragmented political party system, the beneficiaries of state funding are mainly mainstream than small parties.

Some critics are blasting Chakwera for being mean and not being like former party leader, John Tembo who footed the bill for MCP. Really? Rather than quashing Chakwera’s idea, MCP members and the public should be asking critical questions bordering on transparency and accountability. How is the party going to use the funds? MCP should develop a comprehensive policy guideline (if it hasn’t already) outlining its target, budget lines, systems of disbursement and how it sets out to be answerable in the entire process. Is the party going to explore active volunteering of members to help with door-to-door canvassing, leaflet dropping and ushering at political rallies etc.?

One hopes that the party is not trying to use its supporters during the campaign period only and thereafter fall back to business-as-usual. The party should not use the fundraising to just gauge its popularity but to embrace followers, mobilise voters and build a solid connection with the grassroots.  MCP has the chance to model a modern campaign fundraising technique but also usher in a democratic system of ‘political party funding’ drawn from membership and well-wishers. With this, the party could become people-centred and further demonstrate its commitment to separating its activities as a ruling party from that of government if elected. 

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