Malawi 2014: Political affiliation no longer sure path to winning elections

Voter registration excise has started in selected districts and constituencies for the May 2014’s tripartite elections in Malawi, where electorate will be voting for a president, parliamentarians and ward councillors. At the time of writing it was still too early to comment on the turnout but the elections fever is well and truly taking hold of the country; evidenced by the evermore-intense political finger pointing among politicians and political parties.

On a personal level, I am excited by the prospect of registering and voting next year, mainly because this will be my first time to vote in my own country, though I have voted elsewhere before. I was underage in the first two general elections, 1994 and 1999; and I was away during the last two generals, 2004 and 2009. The prospect of voting is more interesting that I am aware in a good company of other first-time voters. 2014 will mark 21 years since Malawi decided to adopt multiparty democracy, and 20 years since the first democratic elections of the current political dispensation – Malawi voted for Legislative council and Legislative Assembly in 1961 and 1964, respectively.

What is interesting, perhaps significant about these elections is that a generation born in democratic Malawi will be casting their votes for the first. This is a generation that never lived under MCP’s one party autocratic rule. Those born between 1993 and 1995, even some of those born in the first months of 1996 will be old enough to vote. This is a generation that only know Kamuzu Banda via literature and only heard him speak through rebroadcasting of his speeches on radios, TV and social media platforms such as YouTube.

Presidential candidates: From left to right – Joyce Banda, Peter Mutharika and Atupele Muluzi
Presidential candidates: From left to right – Joyce Banda, Peter Mutharika and Atupele Muluzi

This means that if political parties must refocus their campaign strategies if they are appeal to this generation. What worked in the past elections is unlikely to work in the contemporary Malawi. Crucially, stats indicate that 65% of Malawi population is aged between 15 and 35 years of age. This makes this demographic even more important. This is a voting block that will most likely decide the electoral results – barring voter apathy, which at the moment seems none-existent in Malawi. There is so much energy among this group to even contemplate voter apathy.

It is entirely up to political parties and prospective candidates, at all levels to sale themselves. Yet 10 months before the elections no political party has issued their electoral manifestos. As excited as I am about voting, I do not yet have a single candidate that I could cast my vote for. Beyond party colours and what little I know about prospective presidential candidates, I do not know what any of the political parties around really stand for; what are their policies and their vision for this country; how they are intending to tackle Malawi’s perennial crises that are too numerous to list here. Malawi is like a blank slate, a country without any policy to guide it (will any party revive Vision 2020?); what are those contesting parties planning to write on this Tubula Rasa? This matters, and it should be at the centre of electoral discourse.

I am aware that there is a question of political parties honouring their manifesto promises. Indeed, a promise only comforts a fool, and honouring promised and fulfilling obligations have been a big problem Malawi. No wonder the recall provision was the first constitutional provision to be repealed. Be that as it may, manifestos still give electorate an idea of candidate’s thought process, which it is a crucial factor insofar as the process of choosing a leader goes. Political parties ought to be foundation of policy formulation. Yet, if the last two decades of multiparty democracy has taught us any lessons is that party politics has largely stood in the way of progress. Politicians in Malawi owe their allegiance to their political parties and their political masters not their country or their constituents, rendering the oath they take meaningless.

Interestingly, the voting pattern of the last four elections shows that Malawians are aware of this deficiency. This can be measured by increased number of independent parliamentarians over the last four decades. For instance, Malawi had no single independent MP in 1994; four candidates won as independents in 1999; in 2004 this figure multiplied tenfold, 40 independent candidates made it into parliament. Even though the number of independent MPs dropped to 32 in 2009, it still remains a huge figure, considering that they outscore UDF and MCP, which had 17 and 27, MPs respectively.

This might suggesting that political parties are losing popularity. They are, but the bigger picture is that more Malawians are interested in what candidates can offer not necessarily political parties. Independent candidates have time to talk about issues affecting people while those running on a party ticket spend a lot of time praising their leaders and castigating other political parties. It shows that political party and candidates with well thought-through manifestos stand a better chance of winning than those without.

These figures clearly indicate that electorate in Malawi are increasingly paying attention to policies and deliverables and not individual and political party pomp. There have been a lot of calls for policy-based politics, something that seems alien to the political establishment thus far, it is not just academics and scribes philosophising on a piece a paper or through airwaves, the voting pattern clearly backs-up calls for policy-based politics.

  • NOTE: Jimmy Kainja will be writing a weekly column on Nyasa Times, please make sure you check it every Wednesday

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