Malawi: Where electorate are more democratic, principled than parties

Malawi’s vice president Khumbo Kachali recently warned that there was a price to pay for those members of parliament advocating for evocation of section 65, which would mean that the Speaker of the house declare vacant seats of parliamentarians that have left Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and join the ruling People’s Party (PP).

However, Kachali’s views contradicted by an outcome of a recent Malawi Economic Justice Network (MEJN) organised public debate in Lilongwe. The debate showed that the majority of the participants want the speaker of the parliament to evoke section 65, as required by the law. The debate was by no means a national representative but it offers an interesting contradiction. These are among the electorate that, in Kachali’s view, are meant to punish politicians that are currently calling for the evocation of section 65.

Of course Kachali has a point, to some extent. As far as 2009 elections are concerned, a lot of parliamentarians that were hostile to the late Bingu wa Mutharika’s minority government (between 2004 and 2009) lost their seats in these elections. Yet there is no evidence that the hostility was the main reason these MPs lost their seats. It’s important to remember that Mutharika had excellent first term. This was the main factor that led to his re-election in 2009. After all the likes of John Tembo returned their parliamentary seats even though they staunchly advocated for evocation of section 65 and Mutharika’s impeachment.

Malawians go to polls in 2014

One thing is for sure: section 65 has nothing for ordinary Malawians. It only matters for most MPs because their income depends on its interpretation – those defecting to a ruling party have a chance of becoming ministers or / and attaining other high ranking government positions. Political party affiliation makes no difference to the majority of Malawians. What matters is that MPs work for their people. The plight of Malawians is not and will never be determined by section 65.

Joyce Banda’s government will be judged by its performance – not by behaviour of its opposition. It is delusional for Kachali to rely on subjective historical analysis; in fact, the four elections that Malawi has had since its return to democracy in 1994 suggest that it is those MPs that are busy switching from a political party to another that are most likely to be voted out on the poling day.

Evidence shows that Malawians are losing patience with party politics. Possibly because Malawians now realise that political parties in the country lack any policy, they are too centralised, they are autocratic, inflexible, have no regard for ordinary people’s interest and they only value their supporters when elections are around the corner.

Some historical perspective is necessary: in 1994 Malawi had only three political parties represented in parliament. There were no independent MPs. Malawi started having independent MPs after the late Chakufwa Chihana decided to work with the then ruling United Democratic Front (UDF). This was against wishes of some of the members of Chihana’s party – Alliance for Democracy (AFORD). Chihana and AFORD paid the price for this: in the following elections (1999) AFORD had seven MPs fewer than 1994.

The 1999 elections also registered the first batch of independent MPs – four of them. This was the first sign that the electorate were getting disillusioned with political parties but they were happy to vote for individuals they could trust.

Between 1999 and 2004 UDF’s Bakili Muluzi fought many personal / selfish battles within his own party in his quest to extend presidential term limits so he could run for a third term. Many political heavyweights left UDF; Muluzi became autocratic and controlling. His paranoia forced him to impose not only a presidential candidate on the party but parliamentary candidates too. UDF won 2004 presidential elections but lost 44 seats in parliament.

The number of independent MPs increased tenfold – from four to 40. Malawi Congress Party (MCP) MPs also shrunk, from 66 MPs to 57, as its indispensable leader, John Tembo continued to get rid of all his critics and challengers within the party.

Despite his landslide victory in 2009, President Bingu wa Mutharika died an unpopular President three years later. He had become autocratic and intolerant of his critics. Just like Muluzi before him, Mutharika faced resistance within his own party. The sacking of Joyce Banda and Khumbo Kachali, which led to the formation of the now ruling PP is the most visible example of this.

These statistics indicate that there is a strong correlation between people’s voting pattern and how politics in conducted in the country – a good sign of good maturing democracy. Paradoxically, it also indicates that the electorate in Malawi are more democratic and principled in their choice than politicians and political parties they have to choose from. This may lead to political apathy, I hope not and I am delighted that this is not the case thus far.

Jimmy Kainja blogs at Twitter: @jkainja

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