Ntata’s Uncommon Sense: Malawi ‘ruling party’ misconception

Shocking as this may sound to many people, the Constitution of Malawi does not as a matter of fact recognize the concept of a “ruling party” in its framing of the governance framework of the country.

Malawi infamous cashgate took place under their watch: Late Bingu wa Mutharika(L),  Joyce Banda (C) and Peter Mutharika 

Even a cursory reading of the constitution reveals very quickly that as far as the presidential election goes, the political party’s role in the political governance of the country is to sponsor a presidential candidate with the aim and hope that that candidate will implement its development agenda and policies, and to mobilise voters for that candidate.

Like many other political governance mistakes that are crippling and sabotaging the socio-economic development of this country, the “ruling party” idea is a relic of the one-party system of government that existed before the advent of the multiparty system in 1994.

For Malawi, the main reason for the country’s governance failures is the fact that the transition to multi-party democracy in 1994 was a “transition without transformation”.Many of the ills that afflicted Malawi’s political and economic development during the one-party system of government have persisted. Some have if fact been made steadily worse in the so-called new democratic dispensation.

During the Kamuzu Banda dictatorship, the party was all powerful and the line of demarcation between party politics and executive leadership of the country virtually did not exist. MCP was truly, for all purposes the “ruling party”. It was not all bad however, because the Kamuzu Banda regime, along with the MCP’s strong arm “ruling party” tactics ensured that basic public services were delivered. Politics under Kamuzu Banda was of the patron-client variety, and except for one or two chief cronies, even powerful MCP members were restrained from using the party to advance corruption and patronage.  In the current dispensation, the failure of our governance system to truly banish the “ruling party” mentality, which shouldn’t really exist in the first place because the democratic constitution intended to remove it, means that clientelism is overlaid with the effects of vigorous multi-party competition, regular elections and fluctuating civil rights.

It means that whenever a political party sponsors a presidential candidate into government, party members feel entitled to the “spoils” of the electoral contest. These spoils are the public coffers and anything in government that can be acquired for self-enrichment. Ever since the Bakili Muluzi administration in 1994, political parties have used the “ruling party” mentality to create a governance system where once a party wins an election, a corruption “free for all party members” descends, with the so-called ruling party using state resources with impunity to promote their party and their political and personal fortunes. Whatever remained of Kamuzu Banda’s merit-based civil service has been undermined by political patronage and weak rule enforcement. Presidential power has been used systematically to buy political loyalty, substantially reducing the effectiveness of constitutional checks and balances.

There is therefore no reason why we should be scratching our heads and wondering how the president’s State of the Nation address last week could be marred by scenes of unruly and uncouth party cadets dressed in paint, inflicting violence on members of parliament and making noise while the president was speaking. There is even less reason for wondering why after these disgraceful and unpalatable scenes, both the president and his party would simply look the other way and fail to condemn the acts let alone discipline the offending delinquents. These so-called party cadets feel a sense of entitlement to intimidate the police, chiefs, parastatal executives and even parliament officials because they believe that being cadets of the “ruling party”, they are untouchable.

It is the “ruling party” mentality that has created thugs of our youth to the point of becoming hooligans that burn cars of members of parliament that apparently speak against what they support.

Meanwhile, Malawi remains one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. The country’s development policies remain largely donor driven because the leaders are just way too busy enriching themselves to care. They simply leave the policy decision-making responsibilities to the donors. Very few members of any so called “ruling party” have ever understood the need for economic transformation, let alone the path that can take the country in that direction, and most political leaders are simply more concerned with their own careers than with national development.

The fallacy of the “ruling party” concept is the culprit for the many evils devastating the country at the governance level. Not too long ago, a reporter asked an MCP spokesperson why they just couldn’t hold a convention to sort out the issues in the party. His answer was, “Conventions cost money, and we’re not in government.”

Thus, although the concept of the ruling party is unknown in the constitution, politicians and even the country at large has come to accept that it is in becoming a “ruling party” that a party’s financial fortunes can substantially be improved. As a nation, we have somehow come to accept this misconception and accept the notion that people should suddenly and inexplicably become rich once they become the “ruling party”.

I have written on numerous occasions about the evils of the political party framework to our political governance framework and I have even called on Malawians to carefully consider whether it is not now time to think seriously about having a president that is not promoted and supported into the presidency by a political party.

I maintain that besides protests marches and demonstrations that decry the state of governance of any given administration, the long-term solution for good governance in the country remains a constitutional reform one. Such a reform would ensure that the “ruling party” misconception is fully addressed and no political party actually privately benefits from the fact that their sponsored presidential candidate gets to form the government administration.

As I have always said, the solutions for Malawi’s problems are quite simple. They just require a few good men who are willing to serve the country and not themselves.

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Ntata, the idea of ‘ruling party’ is not a relic of Dr Banda’s one-party state but a crucial element of democracy. Rather, you should be talking about the notion of ‘ruling party’ being abused in Malawi and young democracies in, for example, Africa. I can’t stand it when writers (analysts) like you conflate issues and therefore fail to address the problem you intend to point out. Most functioning democracies have well-established party systems. In Malawi, our problem is not the party system per se, it is how it has evolved and how it is abused. Look at the USA and… Read more »
The commoner
A well written piece indeed. One of the problems with framing a constitution where the focus was to replace the one party system was to borrow ideas from functioning old democracies. The old democracies like UK have strengthened governance structures to an extent that abuse is vigorously checked and reined in before it becomes a problem. Our governance structures are so weak and poorly funded. Those in power understand this and since public resources are the sure means to instant success, these people would rather keep the status quo than change things that would disadvantage them. Malawi’s problems will get… Read more »

On point

Cognitive DIssonance Theory
Cognitive DIssonance Theory

Are you that man Allan?


Excellent article but will it have ANY effect? Malawians seem committed to the idea of ruling families and ruling parties as if they haven’t failed them for seventy years and plundered the country shamelessly!

I applaud you Allan Ntata for your eloquent analysis of Malawi’s political and socio-economic situation. However, I always ask myself the question……..so what? 10% of the population understands the points you’re making; however, the other 90% have no clue what you’re trying to put across. This 90% is the one that has the same power as the 10% you’re addressing; at least in terms of voting power. This 90% is Malawi’s archilles heal. Until we learn how to address this 90%, we are dead with the same old Kamuzu Banda-type politics. This Kamuzu Banda-type politics serves the politicians well so… Read more »

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