It’s the first-past-the-post, stupid: Malawi democracy

For the nation to live, the tribe must die ~ FRELIMO movement slogan

MCP and Aford must look at a bigger picture

Backlashes from the last May’s Tripartite Elections are in full swing. Most of it is grumbling on issues that any foresighted and politically engaged person could have foreseen before the elections. On its part, the country’s main opposition party, Malawi Congress Party (MCP) has proposed a federal state as a way of ensure equitable distribution of resources.

Likewise, Alliance for Democracy (Aford), a party that has shrunk to only one Member of Parliament, from 36 seats in 1994, believe federalism is the most viable option if all regions of the country are to develop. As others have already pointed out on various forums, both MCP and Aford would not be coming up with this proposal had they won the elections, it is not long ago that MCP said no to a suggestion of working with a party in power.

For Aford, a party that once controlled the entire northern region, this is surely a realisation that there is no way back to its glorious days and I do not think federalism would solve the party’s problems.  The proposal for federalism by both parties has very little to do with national development and equitable distribution of resources, it has everything to do with power and realisation that winning elections is tricky, given the country’s voting system.

Two women walk by a wall plastered ith election campaign posters of President Peter Mutharika of DPP
Two women walk by a wall plastered ith election campaign posters of President Peter Mutharika of DPP

This is not to say that both party’s misgivings about President Peter Mutharika’s regionalism in his public offices appointments are irrelevant. They are right and it is good that they have raised their concerns. Yet, Mutharika has simply exploited Malawi’s shambolic electoral system: the first-past-the-post (FPTP). Mutharika has formed a government having won only 36 per cent of the national vote, and he is not the first. Coincidently, his brother, Bingu formed a government in 2004 with 35 per cent of the vote.

Knowing the flaws of the system, any seating president is left with a decision to make whether to appoint people from across the country or reward those who voted for them, knowingly fully well that these voters will be needed again in the next elections. I am not endorsing this kind of politics – I abhor it, but this is what it is. We must acknowledge it for what it is if we want to make it better.

What could undermine these calculated political decisions is to ensure that a winning president must win over 50 per cent of the national vote. In this case, Mutharika’s stronghold in the southern and eastern regions would not have been enough to give him over 50 per cent of the vote. Mutharika could have been forced to reach-out to other areas. Likewise MCP, Aford and all political parties looking to win elections would have reach-out to other areas.

MCP, being the main opposition and chairing majority of parliamentary committees are well placed to push for change in electoral laws, they have a better chance of getting this through than federalism but they are unlikely to push for it because they are clinging on to the hope that they will benefit from the current scandalous voting system one day. For now MCP can stay in the media by going on about federalism, which, to be frank, there are no traces that the party has ever had such policy.


Deregistering sham political parties is not a solution

Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) recently called for deregistration of what they called “sham” political parties. By “sham” they mean small political parties without parliamentary representation – “briefcase parties.” To CCJP, it is “disgusting” that only five of the 12 political parties that contested in the last elections managed to get parliamentary and local government seats. CCJP has made it clear that they know that people have freedom of association in this country.

Fair enough but I do not think deregistration of “sham” political parties is what is needed to clean-up Malawi politics – if we are talking about politics that deliver for the ordinary Malawians. Deregistering “sham” parties mere cosmetic. Getting rid of FPTP would solve this problem, without having to provoke a constitutional issue of infringing people’s right to freedom of association – a fundamental democratic right.

You need as much voices as possible for democracy to survive, no matter how “stupid”, naïve etc. so long as these voices are not malicious to other people and to the country as a whole. The last presidential debates could have been better but this is not to say that the winning party or the country did not learn or gain anything from the losers. Best policies and solutions are better achieved from a range of diverse voices. The problem is that we dismiss people on reputation and not content of their reasoning.

I have a lot of respect for CCJP and the work they do in this country but their main priority must be ensuring politics that deliver for the people. I do not see any loss for ordinary Malawians when there are a lot of political parties at the ballot. Pride maybe? Let us advocate for abolition of FPTP and make sure section 65 works. Section 65 must include independent parliamentarians as well. These are not freelancers working on their own terms, they are voted by people as well, whom they claim to represent.

You see, the number of political parties are increasing not only because of greed but also because these politicians starting new parties have sensed frustration among Malawians with the current “big” political parties. Have you noticed that there are more and more independent MPs with every election? There was no single independent MP in 1994. This time there were more independent MPs than any single political party managed.

All these issues are a part of the equation that forms electoral process. Most of these issues point to the necessity of having a leader chosen by over 50 per cent of Malawians – this is what majority means. Some argue that 50 plus winning margin is too expensive for a poor country like Malawi because this means a re-run when the first round fails produce over a 50 per cent winning margin.

We cannot use the lack of money as an argument to deny people an opportunity to be ruled by a leader chosen by majority of them. Why did we choose democracy in the first place? It is a dangerous moment when the availability of money, or lack of it, starts determining laws governing our democracy. As we are witnessing, FPTP can be divisive and harmful, especially in a democracy like Malawi where political parties heavily rely of regional blocks to win elections, not policies.

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