The time has come for Malawi’s next General Election when nine presidential hopefuls register with the Malawi Electoral Commission and prudently suggest their sons as running-mates to other candidates; when electoral alliances of opposition parties are formed and disintegrate as their leaders reluctantly contemplate the abandonment of their own presidential dreams; as candidates prepare to make their promises to “end” Malawi’s poverty, power-cuts, and government corruption.
This year, on 21 May, 6.8m voters will elect the new president of Malawi and a host of lesser officers from members of parliament to local Councillors. The most noteworthy candidates for the all-important presidency will be the incumbent, Arthur Peter Mutharika, on the Democratic Progressive (DPP) party-ticket; also the Leader of the Opposition, Lazarus Chakwera, campaigning on the old Malawi Congress Party (MCP) ticket; and Vice-President Saulos Chilima, on the newly-created UTM Party-ticket.
There will be other candidates for this very coveted office, not least the previous president, Joyce Banda, as leader of the People’s Party (PP) and Atupele Muluzi as United Democratic Front (UDF) leader, son of ex-president Bakili Muluzi.
The incumbent, who controls the radio-waves and all public resources, usually wins in Malawi and Mutharika, though deeply unpopular in his party and in the country and with a running-mate in the virtually-unknown Everton Chimulirenji, is hot favourite for the new presidency: such is the power of the status quo in conservative Malawi.
A curious feature of this presidential election is that Chilima and Muluzi are, at present, members of Mutharika’s own government: the one as Vice-President, the other as Minister of Health, and that both of them are under 50 in age.
It is easy for a campaigning incumbent President, like Arthur Peter Mutharika (APM), to claim the credit for all new roads, power-lines and schools, built largely with money collected as aid from foreign taxpayers. It is equally easy for an opposition candidate, like Saulos Chilima (SKC), to deplore the government’s record and to promise (as he has done) a million new jobs.
Joyce Banda, not to be outdone, promises that, within 100 days of being elected, electricity problems will be “dealt with” and blackouts will be “history”: a big promise in a country so plagued by power-cuts that Parliament had to be adjourned recently by the light of MPs’ mobile phones because of “load-shedding” by the Electricity Trust. This form of electioneering has been going on in Malawi since the dawn of its democracy in 1994 and is not, of course, unique to Malawi. It is often dismissed by cynics who say that all politicians, especially those who aspire to the Malawian presidency, are greedy liars who never keep their promises when in power and whose sole purpose is the acquisition of power and wealth.
This cynicism probably started under Atupele’s father, President Bakili Muluzi and his extravagant and debt-ridden(UDF) government; some might say under British colonialism and under the tyranny of Hastings Banda. It still corrupts Malawian politics, public services, and business-life and has reduced the Anti-Corruption Bureau to its present toothless state. The fact that all Malawian presidents have become overnight kwacha-billionaires has reinforced the suspicion.
Experience gives reason to suspect the good faith of Peter Mutharika and Saulos Chilima as they position themselves for Malawi’s tripartite elections next year. Mutharika’s promises of an end to poverty and corruption under his DPP government have not come close to being honoured under the first term of his presidency, as Malawi continues to struggle with massive poverty and official corruption. His DPP still enjoys some of the ill-gotten gains of the massive Cashgate financial scam (of which at least MK236 billions remain in guilty hands) The President still keeps his hold on the great white palace built in Thyolo for his presidential brother by a grateful Portuguese construction company, bloated on government contracts. He still enjoys a fleet of cars given to him by Malawian-Indian businessmen.
The scenes last year of his DPP Youth activists, armed with pangas on the streets of Blantyre are still fresh and shocking. The Youth Wing of the DPP has acquired a very violent reputation, shared with Hastings Banda’s Young Pioneers, of old, and, more recently, Bakili Muluzi’s Young Democrats. “It is sad” said the new EU ambassador with measured understatement, ”that Malawi is going in the wrong direction in the fight against corruption”.
Joyce Banda, Peter’s immediate predecessor in the presidency, who will be a candidate in this election under her People’s Party label, is also tainted by Cashgate, which removed into private hands 24 billion kwacha from the public purse in one brief orgy of six months during her own presidential watch (2012 – 2014).
Chilima’s new UTM, which promises a transformation of Malawian political life, is tainted by Chilima’s failure to answer with complete frankness Zeinab Badawi’s probing questions in a recent BBC HardTalk programme. His new political movement has not rid itself of the very people (Patricia Kaliati, Noel Masangwi, Lewis Ngalande, and others) who gave Peter Mutharika’s brother, President Bingu, a well-deserved reputation for political thuggery. The murderers of the student-activist, Robert Chasowa, are brazenly part of the present UTM High Command.
All is not well under the surface of the “Warm Heart of Africa” which Malawi claims to possess. The pool of talent available to a new president when forming a potential government is small and rather stagnant.
There are, however, a few — very shaky — grounds for optimism. The current president, a former professor of law in the United States, is a substantial improvement on his brother. He has banished some of the bullying and bluster from his press-conferences even though he demonstrates the old Mutharika arrogance and hyper-sensitivity to criticism. His Minister of Information has recently reminded the media of the terms of the notorious “Protected Flags, Emblems and Names” Act which makes the expression of “disrespect” for the president a criminal offence.
It is hard to imagine a presidential election being properly conducted under terms that make the principal contender above criticism, and one who regularly refuses to answer questions from the media. It is true that Mutharika’s faults are mainly ones of omission (he often seems a tired, rather out-of-touch, old man) than of commission for which Bingu became notorious (squirreling money into his own foreign bank accounts; favouritism for his own Lhomwe tribe in the Thyolo, Phalombe, Mulanje districts). The main opposition party, MCP, has distanced itself from the Hastings Banda legacy and has shed John Tembo in favour of the more anodyne Lazarus Chakwera.
Anyone who will soon witness the long queues of voters waiting patiently on election-day, their fingers stained for identification purposes, will understand that Malawian democracy is certainly not dead, even though there has been a marked fall in voter-registrations since 2014.
The print media in Malawi has an honourable tradition of independence and honesty, preserved by brave newspaper- editors and championed until recently by columnists like the late Raphael Tenthani, and continued today by Steve Nhlane. Nyasa Times has played tits solid part in the free-wheeling on-line media world. Political scientists at the University of Malawi have also contributed an honourable role in what is mysteriously called Malawi’s democratic “dispensation”, as if it were still in the gift of some presidential or colonial tyrant.
These Malawian voters, academics and newsmen have retained some of their faith in Malawian democracy even as their ageing political elites and parliamentary representatives have betrayed it in spectacular orgies of self-indulgence. They have kept their faith in Malawi’s well-constructed Constitution even when their country seemed stuck under a seemingly endless succession of “re-cycled politicians”, and an utterly unworkable office of Vice-President.
The role of the Malawian courts in preserving constitutional democracy is also noteworthy. It was demonstrated recently by the Blantyre High Court’s ruling in favour of allowing the UTM official recognition as a political party that could compete in the General Election when the governing DPP party wanted (in predictable government-party style) to exclude it from the poll. It once prevented Bakili Muluzi from an unconstitutional third term in office. The prospects for Malawi under a new, and younger, generation of leaders untainted by the corruption scandals of their seniors have never been brighter even if, as seems likely this time, APM stumbles-on for a second term, with his lacklustre governmental team, shorn of the undoubted talents and vigour of Chilima and the young Muluzi.
But Malawi may have to wait for a few years beyond 2019 for that big change.Follow and Subscribe Nyasa TV :