Ntata’s Uncommon Sense: Re-thinking how Malawi elect presidents

The election of the president by direct universal suffrage currently in use in Malawi seems to be one of the best ways—if not the best way—to decide between candidates for the presidency for at least three reasons.

First, the election of the president by direct universal suffrage is a simple method, because it allows, through a round of voting, to select the man (or woman) that citizens (or a majority of them) would like to see occupy the most coveted space in the country, the palace of the Republic. The presidency is the famous meeting of a man and a people.

Second, the election of the president by direct universal suffrage seems suited to the anthropological reality of the Malawian historical heritage that prefer to cheer the victor at the end of a duel, a hero they can relate to and whom they want to take charge for better or for worse. Indeed, universally mankind has always dreamed of the arenas where brave individuals stage an epic battle, like gladiators. The passions of the spectators are not satisfied until the hero defeats all others and is proclaimed “king.”

Finally, the people’s chosen one, the hero of the democratic contest, the ritual of universal suffrage, is supposed to have an unquestionable legitimacy, which facilitates citizen support of his policies and provides international respectability.

The presidential election is the object of a legal framework shared by the constitution and electoral laws. The constitutional right of the presidency, however, has in recent times been often manipulated by the leaders who seek to shape it in their favor, or disputed by the opposition proposing to redefine it in a more equitable way. This challenge, to have instruments that satisfy all stakeholders and make elections transparent, creates a legal conflict: the instruments are written and rewritten, and judges are asked to decide complex disputes.

And a poorly regulated legal conflict leads to a political conflict.

It is becoming increasingly clear that any presidential election in Malawi is perilous because the delegation of sole power, or central government, which allows the control of resources, is at stake. Whoever wins the presidency essentially wins all other elections, parliamentary or local government. The result has been a Malawi in which electoral engineering has become a norm. More than two decades after the democratic transitions and subsequent organization of a series of elections, the country’s elections are still questionable and in crisis. As regards the 2019 elections, it is now evident that those electionsare the underlying cause of the undesirable political conflict currently socio-economically crippling the country. But 2019 does not stand alone. Several times in the past, the preparation and running of elections in general, and presidential elections in particular, or the proclamation of the results, have often caused tension that have often led to confrontations that have threatened political stability and civil peace.

It is still rare in Malawi that election results are recognized and accepted by all political players. The results are almost always disputed by opposition candidates or by those in power. The challenge to the results is often at the root of political tensions that generate latent conflict.

What fuels these disputes? Is it the poor organization of elections with a late implementation of the legal and institutional framework as well as failures in the pre-election and election process? It is the bad faith of the losing parties, or the fact of electoral fraud that undermines the integrity of the election and justifies recourse? Or the bias, even incompetence, of the electoral regulatory body, the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC)?

Noting that elections are increasingly becoming occasions for conflict and violent excesses, and the starting point for serious political crises, it is probably time to take another look at Malawi’s democratic governance framework and reconsider whether the current Universal suffrage setup for electing the president ought to be maintained.

As we can see, the interminable process of trying to resolve elections disputes through the courts can fuel tensions that affect civil order. I dare suggest that the eventual solutions reached by the courts may not always satisfy the participants, who will most likely resort to other forms of protest that may fuel a major political crisis. The recurrence of mutual accusations of fraud and corruption, justified or not, and the refusal to accept the verdict of the polls (by those in power or the opposition) inevitably engender confrontation with unpredictable consequences. These are the perils that accompany the current method through which we elect our president, and they will continue to do so until the framework is revised. The highlight of the social dynamic, the presidential election affects a country’s political and institutional life. Although it is meant to simplify politics to a confrontation between individuals, ultimately the election by universal suffrage polarizes institutional life, which distorts the separation of powers.

Politics is driven by the children of universal suffrage and democracy—the political parties. A true democracy requires properly functioning political parties, that is, organized and sustainable political forces composed of citizens with the same political leanings, with a local and national presence, whose purpose is to gain and exercise power by seeking popular support. Political parties are supposed to be key actors in the democratic system, bringing together diverse interests, selecting and installing candidates for various elections, and developing competing political propositions, giving people an opportunity to choose. Political parties are supposed to give life to democracy.

Ideally then, parties would thus be responsible for recruitment and selection of leaders for government positions. The structuring of opinion and the legitimacy, stability and social integration of individuals would also be their responsibility. Modern political life would then correspond to ideological divisions—to confrontations between the political platforms—between which voters would choose

It is evident, however, that nothing like this exists in Malawi. In reality, Malawian politics is not as rich and complex as it should be. It is reduced—to a large extent— to a choice between individuals (for a long time men, but increasingly women too). Political parties take a back seat to the candidates themselves. A strong political party’s objective is no longer simply to win elections but to install their candidate as president, whom they can then pressure into patronizing their corrupt wealth acquisition schemes.

This “presidentialization” of parties and political systems favors patronage, messianism and corruptionand in recent times even tribalism. In the end, in electing a president in the current setup, we do not elect him because of a political party platform that has a promising government program, but a messiah who is supposed to have miracle solutions and who essentially is a stooge for party members’ self-enrichment.

This presidentialization of politics suggests to me that there is a need to review the manner in which a president is elected.Perhaps it is time to consider a purely parliamentary leadership framework where the electorate vote only for political parties and not directly for presidents, and the president is then chosen in the national assembly by members of parliament, or by the party with the greatest majority in parliament.

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