The passing of the Electoral Reforms Bill by parliament has put an end to fevered deliberations and somewhat pulled the country from the brink of a constitutional crisis. But as both sides of the political divide have awoken to new political realities, the unintended consequences of the 50+1 electoral reform are just beginning to manifest.
Of course, it is early days to dwell on a few political developments that have unfolded since the Constitutional Court judgement of 3 February 2020.However, with a fresh presidential poll earmarked for 19 May, the opposition MCP and UTM have, ironically, been the first to fall into a tangle over the creation of an electoral alliance.
MCP president Lazarus Chakwera and UTM leader Saulos Chilima never foresaw excruciating hide-and-seek alliance talks nor intense pressure engulfing their parties, at least when the two walked hand-in-hand to court and prayed for the annulment of last year’s presidential poll result.
The verdict, in their favour, was supposed to clear out obstinate hurdles because the court went further to decree on the 50+1 rule of voting for president and the complete overhaul of MEC. Given the impetus to effect change, Speaker of Parliament Catherine Gotani Hara and the opposition rallied on urgency and had parliament swiftly enact reforms as the ruling DPP kicked about in nervous protestations.
For a start, now that it is necessary for political parties to forge electoral alliances to reach the 50+1 threshold, we are at a critical juncture that will allow us to understand what is exactly wrong with the post-Kamuzu Banda political system.
Despite our politicians constantly blaming lacunas in the constitution, the major cause of the country’s problems lies in a defective political culture. One that is devoid of ideology and instead has created a political system defined by personalised leadership, lack of national interest, greed, corruption, tribalism – all in a game lubricated by depraved forms of appeasement and patronage.
On-going negotiations between MCP and UTM expose this as does the already forged DPP-UDF alliance. The MCP and UTM who have lauded themselves for braving an eight-month fight for ‘justice and political rights’ are not only torn by mistrust and unaligned political interests but tribal considerations and disagreements over a power-sharing formula. Their big kahunas have sights on constitutional change to quench their lust for power.
Let’s be honest. Parties have not been caught unawares by 50+1. Political analyst Henry Chingaipe is quoted as saying the MCP-UTM alliance should have materialised long ago but has failed due to ‘egos. ‘At this rate, any vacuum could suck up the parties to positions none ever intended to occupy.
Obviously, alliances and coalitions are not new. Minority governments have, since 1994, worked with other parties to establish a working majority and achieve ‘inclusivity’ for example, UDF’s on-and-off coalitions with AFORD (1994-2004). Incumbent president Peter Mutharika DPP partnered with the UDF between 2014-2019. And Gwanda Chakuamba forged a formidable electoral alliance with Chakufwa Chihana in 1999 and their MCP-AFORD bloc nearly defeated the UDF.
What is new though is that with 50+1, we have moved away from First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) makeshift market of political negotiations to a stock-market where politicians, like companies, have real value.
Their value, at taxpayers’ expense, will be determined by political dynamics and one’s capital, for instance, being son of the country’s political god Father; former CEO serving as state VP; and member-financier of a party.
In the wings, are ruthless business tycoons funding political parties, who disregarding the edicts of the Political Parties Act of 2018, are investing their money for a hefty return through government tenders.
What does this tell us about the future of government making and governance? As ConCourt judges cynically opined, the cost of maintaining our democracy has gone up. Current arduous talks mean we need to brace ourselves for long periods of infighting between coalition partners and even unstable governments.
Gridlocked post-election disagreements over policy and positions might lead us to full-blown political crises including ferocious decoupling of state president and a vice president who did not just balance the ticket but ‘lent’ votes to the coalition.
The FPTP voting system, heavily abhorred for producing unrepresentative governments, might have failed to produce a two-party system and instead allowed fragmentation and the existence of third parties. But current 50+1 induced political re-alignment point to the emergence of two dominant political parties (possibly DPP and MCP) which could eventually alter the configuration of parliament.
A two-party system could be a recipe for deep polarization but also the creation of a context in which small parties are marginalised. In fact, there are legitimate fears among small parties that as junior alliance partners, they might be used like ‘condoms.’ The UDF and UTM would not be wrong to agonise over becoming irrelevant and their structures crumbling to extinction.
Because tribalism and regionalism are key features of political party formations and mobilisation, 50+1 might not eradicate tribal politics but transpose it to new ambits. The DPP has already deployed a ‘southern strategy’ by partnering with the UDF. MCP is relying on its ‘central region strategy’ having waged post-election retributory actions which sought to ‘punish southerners.’
In all this, disillusionment with politics and voter fatigue could combine to deliver low turn-out especially in the second-round of voting.
For years, calls for electoral reform have been framed around the weak mandate of presidents, concerns over monopolisation of power, poor national decision-making, and continued bias of MEC etc. But if we do not realise that our defective political system is the problem, 50+1 has the potential of producing harsh unintended consequences.Follow and Subscribe Nyasa TV :