Of presidential debates and political ideologies

The historic initiative by Zodiak Broadcasting Corporation (ZBS) that pioneered the concept of debates by those aspiring for high political office is, perhaps, one of the most significant events in our nascent democracy. That it had to take us twenty years is another matter, notwithstanding that the process took much longer in the established democracies; the point being that we should have adopted the practices towards meaningful participatory democracy right from the start.

This does not, in anyway, belittle the great strides initiated by ZBS, whose idea of Presidential Debates has spawned a debate movement that has encompassed the whole spectrum of players in the upcoming Malawi 2014 Tripartite Elections in May – councilors, MPs and Presidential candidates. This can only be good for consolidation of democratic values and the process of engagement with the electorate. I can only hope that such debates will become an entrenched continuous process as opposed to them being election year events. In addition, the format should ideally move from a question and answer session to a proper debate over pertinent defined issues or topics.

The running mates and their spouses  during their debates
The running mates and their spouses during their debates

The debates have been widely welcomed by the general public and it has been refreshing to see political “wanna be’s” being held up to scrutiny in their personal right as well as representatives of their respective political parties. Given that it is a novel concept, I would wish to congratulate all those that have had the courage to face the music, as it were; it’s easier said than done! Inevitably, some have fared better than others and this is to be expected in any competitive situation where judgments have to be made. Sadly, the governing Peoples’ Party has been an embarrassment and has failed to show maturity following their petulant withdrawal from the second Vice-Presidential debate and, now, the Presidential debate on flimsy grounds that portray the party as being narcissistic and arrogant and, ironically, with  a worrying inferiority complex for a party in power.

Based on the debates so far, apart from a lack of understanding of the role of vice-president, MP or councilor and inadequate basic appreciation of economic and public finance issues, another glaring observation is that our politicians have no clue as to what they or their parties believe in and stand for; they seem clueless on the concept of political ideology and how it should drive their policies and socio-economic development agenda. And perhaps that is because Malawi political parties have no clearly defined ideologies; one can only infer their beliefs and values from their manifestos and podium pronouncements. An ideology is a belief or a set of beliefs on which people, parties, or countries base their actions and it is what should galvanize the mobilization of support from people that share these views and are willing to vote a political party into power. In general, most of our parties simply follow a populist, liberal agenda without properly defining themselves.

A Political Ideology 101 write-up is beyond the scope of this column but suffice to say, as a quick reference, that universally the political spectrum is defined from left to right. Left-wing politics are traditionally seen as dynamic, movement or change-oriented whilst right-wing politics represent order and maintaining an idealized status quo. The middle ground is called centrism and institutions with such positions are termed “moderate.”

The various political ideologies that result from this spectrum are then categorized in terms of liberalism and conservatism with the degree of conservatism increasing towards the rightist end. The generic liberal/conservative view is further broken down into various, often overlapping ideological shades. These are further complicated by the incorporation of the bipolar economic systems of capitalism and communism and everything in between – including socialism – which result in a bewildering array and combination of political ideologies and systems of government. On the leftist side, there are, for example, progressives, communist, liberals, social-liberals, social democrats and socialists whilst proponents of right wing ideologies include conservatives, traditionalists, neoliberals, nazis and fascists.

A liberal ideology and political system favors some reasonable state role in society and economy, and places a high priority on individual political and economic freedom. The main ideals behind liberalism are freedom, tolerance, responsibility, social justice and equally opportunity for all. Liberal beliefs include equal access to education, freedom of speech and press, tolerance of diversity/ multiculturalism and equal rights between men and women. The Democratic Party in the USA is an example of a liberal party that leans towards promotion of working class, racial, ethnic and sexual minority rights and values. Conservatives, on the other hand, promote traditional religious and family values, a fully capitalistic, free-market system, minimal state intervention in business and deregulation of banking, commerce and industry. Conservative institutions like the Republican Party in the USA are viewed as pro- (big) business and geared towards preservation of wealthy and powerful elites.

Given the new mantra of issue-based politics and campaigns, we, Malawians need to be more demanding in understanding the ideology of our numerous political parties and ensuring that they abide by their professed values and beliefs through their policies, governance and socio-economic agenda as defined in their manifestos. In fact, ideology-based political institutions would, mercifully, reduce the number of irrelevant briefcase parties – over 40! – that dot our political landscape! Otherwise, we shall continue to be plagued by the mediocre personality-based politics that we have practiced since independence and which, in my view, account for our slow rate of progress into a vibrant nation even after 50 years.

Although I feel that having 11 participants is an impractical overkill, let me take this opportunity to say “Good luck!” to all the hopefuls in the upcoming Presidential Debates.

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