South Africans are voting today. It is one of the five elections in SADC region this year alone. Mozambique, Botswana, Namibia and, of course Malawi are other four countries holding elections this year. For South Africa, there are no prizes for guessing the winner. It is a forgone conclusion that African National Congress (ANC) will return power, quite a contrast to Malawi, which has probably the tightest elections in its 20 years of democracy, particularly the presidential race.
You could be forgiven if you concluded that that Malawi democracy is more mature than South Africa’s – quiet the opposite. Indeed, it may not be until after 2024 elections for ANC to face any genuine threat of losing elections. Yet, South Africa’s politics is fought over policies issues that matter to the country. South Africans have a genuine choice at the polls, right or wrong. The ANC dominance is down to the fact that it is still reaping its rewards as a liberation party that fought the nasty apartheid system.
The situation is different in Malawi. The country has 12 presidential candidates who have so offered no genuine alternatives. For the first time presidential candidates have had a public forum, via live national debates, to market themselves and they have failed miserably. In fact the debates may have succeeded in confusing further the large number of undecided voters. It is good that Malawi’s are tripartite elections; folks will turn up because there is a need to vote for MPs and local government representatives otherwise the turnout would have been an interesting one to note.
The lack of choice between the presidential candidates make these elections too close to call and not because of competitiveness. It is competition of mediocrity, not brilliance. It is sad to say that the winner of presidential elections will not have more than 50% of the vote. But given Malawi’s shambolic fist-past-the-post voting, having less than 50% of the vote does not matter. Yes, Malawi could easily have a presidential candidate winning with as little as 15%. It is a low deal on Malawians.
In a political system that can have a dozen presidential candidates, first-past-the-post voting system is, frankly, ridiculous. A winning candidate must have more than 50% of the vote; that is what majority is. For selfish reasons, Malawi politicians have always been reluctant to accept the importance of this. This is what I call a political class in Malawi. Their only interest is to preserve their dominance over ordinary folk, whose only duty is to pay tax and vote at the given interval, legitimatising administration of bandits.
Malawi democracy has so far only succeeded in building political dynasties that have done nothing for the country’s ordinary folk. We must demand better and this starts with structural changes. Elections only are not enough. The current elections campaign has lacked excitement because the contestants are ever more similar. This is why various “poll results” making rounds in the local media are gaining more attention – anything to spice this pathetic exercise. Maxon Mbendera, the electoral body chief, has warned that such polls could lead to voter apathy.
Mbendera may have a point but the lack of choice between presidential candidates should be the cause of concern insofar as voter apathy is concerned. Polls are a part of electoral process, bogus or not. Electorate must have a genuine choice – Malawi is democracy without choices, this is the problem, not polls. What will stop people destroying the presidential vote they are unconvinced with the choice of presidential candidates? The problem is that this protest vote will be counted as ‘null and void’, which is not, and commentators and analysts will happily blame it on inadequate civic education, especially as these are the first-ever tripartite elections.
India, considered the world’s largest democracy, has introduced a new option that allows the electorate to reject all the candidates if they are unhappy with the choice before them. In think Malawi should consider having this option. It sounds ridiculous but it has its uses. Those unhappy with all the candidates must be allowed to officially indicate so instead of counting their destroyed votes as ‘null and void’. It is important for the country to know what people think of the candidates.
This could force political parties scrutinise their candidates more and offer the best candidate available, not just a son or daughter of that big man or that well-connected wealthy woman. If the votes of those rejecting all candidates get the ‘majority’, then electoral commission must call a fresh election with fresh candidates and bar all the rejected ones. This would help Malawi get rid of recycled politicians, most of whom are proven failures.