Financing of election campaigns: Ahead of Malawi’s 2014 polls

Malawi will in May next year hold its challenging first ever Tripartite Elections. While official campaign period has not yet been opened, almost all the 48 political parties have already started repositioning themselves.

But today I want us to focus our attention on financing of election campaigns. Already, we have seen two opposing concepts of the financing of election campaigns in Malawi:

  1.  The Malawi Congress Party (MCP) under the new leadership of Dr Lazarus Chakwera, has asked its membership to finance the party with small donations, more or less the way America’s Barrack Obama financed his. This is sometimes called crowd-sourcing, from a large crowd of people.
  2.  The other concept is the governing Peoples Party (PP), which has asked government ministers to donate. This is the opposite: a small group of people investing a large amount of money each. (It looks like though the other two Malawi’s main parties, United Democratic Front (UDF) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) rely on personal wealth of the people close to their founders, which results in a situation similar to PP, but a bit less openly).

Let’s analyze the consequences. When a person invests a lot of money, he or she wants a return on that investment. If the money is invested in a political campaign, a reward will be expected, the way Malawi’s once mighty business magnate Mulli Brothers got government tenders in exchange for financing the election campaign of the DPP in 2009, among others.

Chakwera: MCP presidential candidate seeking financial contributions
Chakwera: MCP presidential candidate seeking financial contributions

When a government minister invests, he or she may reasonably expect to get another influential position again, and use that position to make good on the investment. This cannot be done from a salary, so other means- good or evil- have to be found. And when someone is rewarded for support before the election, it will be difficult for the powers that be (that derive their power from the support of the person) to stop someone making good on his investment, even when that is done illegally, for instance, through corruption.

On the other hand, when there is a large group of people financing the election campaign with small donations each, such a direct reward is clearly not possible and cannot be expected. This is the model that Dr Chakwera of the MCP is trying out.

We could see in the past, with the example of late President Bingu wa Mutharika: in his first term he had shed off the party that brought him to power, and that had huge political debts to its financiers. He was free to move in a way that brought better governance and he chose to bring better food security. For his re-election he needed a lot of support, and made huge political debts, which he had to make good on.

His second term was a clear disaster and we knew that right from his acceptance speech: he emphasized secrecy several times. That was a bad sign because secrecy enables corruption. The opposite: transparency and accountability fights corruption. During his second term late Mutharika continuously got upset over demands of accountability, probably because he felt (rightly) that it threatened his bad governance.

Back to today: the PP has a clear reason for the ministers to finance the campaign: they can expect to be facilitated to make good on their investment, legally or otherwise. Clear position- bad for the nation but good for the financiers.

The MCP has a bit of a problem here: there is no clear reason for the common people to finance the campaign until there is a clear manifesto. In the past MCP stood mostly for better car privileges for the leader of the opposition, who happened to be the leader of the MCP.

Otherwise a vague call for “universal fertilizer subsidy” without any financial plan to back it was about it. Now Dr Chakwera will have to come up with something inspiring to bring confidence to the people of Malawi that he will bring a new type of politics, that is worth supporting with a hundred kwacha or more.

Where are his priorities: trade and privatization as in the early UDF? Food security as in the early DPP? Hand-outs as in the PP? Discipline, obedience, unity and loyalty as in the early MCP?

Private sector lead growth as President Joyce Banda has sometimes mentioned? State lead growth as Muluzi Junior has proposed? Fighting corruption as Mutharika did early in his first term? We don’t know as yet, and until I know I cannot give my hundred kwacha to Dr Chakwera, no matter how much I trust an outsider and a man of God more than the current ruling class that has made Malawi into one of the least developed countries of the world.

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