Malawi: The enigma of political party funding

The recent Newstime Africa report which has accused Malawi’s ruling party of using government funds for the running of its affairs highlights yet another blight spot on Malawi politics and in particular the lack of checks and balances on public spending.

The report itself will not surprise many Malawians most of whom already suspect that ruling parties in the country use public resources. Yet it is one thing to be suspicious of something and quite another to have evidence of it. This is the importance of the report. It is evidence, which clearly shows that Malawi needs enforceable rules on political party funding.

This is not only necessary to keep checks on corruption but also to level the political playing field – between a party or parties in power and opposition. It would stop any ruling party from getting complacent and taking everything for granted, as it is currently the case. It is such a system that convinced former President, Bakili Muluzi that he could bully Malawians into allowing him a third term in office – via a constitutional change; it is this system that allowed Muluzi to impose President Bingu wa Mutharika on United Democratic From (UDF) as its presidential candidate in 2004.

DPP machete thugs: They mostly use state resources for ruling party activities

It is the system that has convinced President Mutharika that he can bully everyone within Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and install his brother as a successor. Of course with full knowledge that DPP has government resources at its disposal to run a potentially successful campaign, like Muluzi and UDF did for him (Mutharika) in 2004.

In Malawi, boundaries between a ruling party and government are very blurred, if there is any difference at all. This has been the case throughout Malawi’s young democracy. Slogans like “UDF, boma!” And “DPP, boma!” have epitomised the two administrations the country has had since return to democracy in 1994; and it is sadly an acceptable feature of the country’s political scene.

There is no coincidence that in Malawi it is only a ruling party that always has resources to buy and distribute political party materials: t-shirts, party cloth, bicycles, etc. UDF had all these resources whilst in power. Not today, now that they are in opposition. MCP had these resources prior to the 1994 general elections. Nearly 20 years in opposition, MCP has nothing. Today it is the ruling DPP that has such resources yet its leader Mutharika could not afford it when he contested for presidency in 1999 for his now defunct United Party (UP) – he got 0.47% of the vote.

These issues are important in sustaining Malawi democracy. And President Mutharika is aware of this fact: barely a fortnight after the 2009 elections victory the President announced that DPP would reveal names and identities of the business men and women who helped the party with campaign materials that included bicycles, t-shirts, clothes and flags. Three years down the line President Mutharika has not honored the promise and the country recently scored “zero on party funding accountability.”

Malawi is currently going through multiple crises. This is a common knowledge. Unfortunately, this means important issues like this one (political party funding) are unlikely to attract the attention it deserves. Simply because it is not as urgent as the lack fuel, perennial electricity cuts, lack of forex and deteriorating political and democratic freedoms. This is understandable.

Yet all these problems are mere symptoms of the systemic failures of successive regimes, and not the causes. Malawi cannot permanently do away with these problems with all the systemic loopholes still in place. How do we expect opposition MPs to challenge the government on these issues when the ruling party are reportedly using government funds buy them out? Is this not the reason President Mutharika recently boasted that he could successfully seek a third term if he pleased?

Accountability and transparency on political party funding would ensure that any ruling party will no longer feel too comfortable with the electorate and it would ensure that a ruling party or parties have not got any sense of a guaranteed re-election regardless of their performance and conduct. Ensuring transparency on political party funding is key to good governance; and a very good foundation for building strong democratic institutions.

*Jimmy Kainja blogs at www.jimmykainja.co.uk

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