Malawi presidential running mates of convenience, tribalism and regionalism

There is a difference between knowing the possibility of something happening and having the actual experience. The death in office of President Bingu wa Mutharika on 5th April 2012 has made what was all along a possibility of Vice President becoming a president all more realistic with President Joyce Banda’s (JB) ascending to the highest office. Perhaps for the first time since the 1994 general elections, this will make more Malawians think seriously about presidential running mates in next year’s tripartite elections.

Political parties themselves seem to be aware of this, all of the four major parties that have had their conventions have decided to leave the position vacant for now and have opted to let their presidential candidates chose their own running mates. In an ideal world this is certainly a good thing because presidential candidates have an opportunity to choose a running mate of their choice, someone they are confortable and happy working with.

However, we are not living in an ideal world. In Malawi the choice of running mate has always been strategic. It has to be ‘politically correct’. In most cases being ‘politically correct’ only means reaching out to popular opinion, and this is not always a good thing, especially in a democracy like Malawi where people tend to vote on ethnic/tribal lines and political parties always position themselves regionally.

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

One of the lessons that the last four elections have taught us is that it is considered a poor strategy for a political party to have a presidential candidate and their running mate from the same region, even worse from the same tribe. Yes, Bingu had JB as a running mate and they are both from the south region but then this was just as a strategic choice. It is not that Bingu believed JB deserved the position or that he believed JB was someone he could comfortably work with, Bingu was attracted by JB’s public image as a well-known hard working female entrepreneur. Like all other choice of running mates in Malawi, this was what a lawyer Chikosa Silungwe recently called ‘a choice of convenience’.

Speaking at a two-day conference in Lilongwe where delegates were assessing the country’s preparedness for 2014 tripartite elections, Silungwe observed that tribalism is a big elephant in the room in so far as Malawi politics is concerned.

Silungwe was taking questions from participants after giving a presentation on behalf of Chancellor College’s Law Professor, Edge Kanyongolo. Silungwe gave examples of how Malawi Congress Party (MCP), People’s Party (PP) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have decided to elect three vice presidents representing the country’s north, central and southern regions. It will not be surprising if another party comes up with a fourth vice president for eastern region.

There is no clear evidence if such strategies actually work but it is clear that political parties are happy playing it safe. But Silungwe rightly noted that running mates of convenience has been a problem in Malawi so far, as both Bakili Muluzi and Bingu fell out with their deputies in the end. Of course of this had a lot to do with succession disputes but then such disputes only arise because the presidents themselves chose to go with running mates of convenience instead of those they believe could eventually succeed them. These disputes a potential threat to peace political environment, as we saw with the mid-night six’s failed attempt to stop JB taking over from Bingu.

Clearly the ‘common sense’ strategic decision to have a running mate from different region as a way of avoiding accusations of tribalism is, in effect, tribalism itself. Running mates must be chosen on merit, not for convenience. A common perception throughout the world, with some justification, is that Vice President’s office is less important; more like a ceremonial one. Yet the death in office of Bingu should open our eyes to the importance of this office, especially here in Malawi where the vice president automatically steps up to a full president.

Chakwera:  MCP presidential candidate
Chakwera: MCP presidential candidate

Meritocracy is a mark of any progressive society or an organisation. It is not only justice that people should be hired on merit, it also means you end up with right people in right positions and society develops. Malawi politics can only achieve this if we, the electorate start electing people for what they can do for the country, not who they are, what tribe they are and what political colour they wear.

As much as political parties in Malawi in regional based, it is important to remember as we go to the polls next May that in Malawi we do not vote for political parties, we vote for individuals. Look at the qualities and vision of the people you are voting for and think carefully about presidential running mate; s/he’s your president should the president you are choosing be incapacitated.


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

Feedback: [email protected], web:, twitter @jkainja

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