Op-Ed: Unintended consequences of 50+1 electoral system in Malawi

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.

Blue and yellow:  DPP and UDF are set  to achieve more than 50 percent of the total votes required for the winner.

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.

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Mdala
Mdala
1 year ago

The advantage of 50 +1 is also, that two or more parties in our Malawian constellation have work together to form the executive and legislative branches of government! This minimises already the common problems of nepotism and regionalism. Additional it creats especially in the cabinet a check and balance situation a kind of opposition, where the major decisions are made! Of course it depends strongly from the junior coalition partner how good this will work! In general our opposition in Parlament and also controversial decision making in Cabinet is week! The three contributing factors are 1. the position of the… Read more »

Atsibweni
Atsibweni
1 year ago
Reply to  Mdala

On the surface, it appears as if tribalism and regionalism are being minimised. But the dominant tribes and regions will still call the shots. The rest will be HELPERS/FOLLOWERS. Tribalism and regionalism will be entrenched. MCP has been violently protecting its central region turf by building an artificial border with the southern region (Nsundwe boys). DPP is now saying Mangochi is no go-zone. If the central and southern region have mainstream parties, what about the NORTH?

Jason Bailer
Jason Bailer
1 year ago

Blame still has to go to the legal system we have in the country whereby those in the know tend to deliberately twist legal interpretations just to suit and satisfy their stomachs. How can a legal expert say the 50% + 1 was there all along but was not enforced? Where was he not to bring it out or press a button alerting laymen like me that things were wrong somewhere only to come up after realizing that he was being cheated on the fair sharing of the pie? Instead of utilizing your hard earned knowledge you are busy practising… Read more »

Nalingula
Nalingula
1 year ago

No Problem with 50 +1 …If anything we are where we STARTED …UDF was the Party of the South Until Bingu came …With his Tribal Antics ….He took away the Lomwe Districts and UDF became a predominantly Yao Party ….That was the End ….By then the North had changed from Supporting AFORD to supporting anyone who promised to Deliver …At the same time MCP maintained it’s Central Region stronghold….50 +1 has saved some Parties from merely being Tribal Groupings to Regional Parties as you are putting It – Eventually they have to appeal to the Whole Nation .If anything the… Read more »

Phiri
Phiri
1 year ago
Reply to  Nalingula

50+1 appears to make all people matter but this is done through TOKENISM. For example, it is possible that none of the main parties may not pick a running-mate from the northern region. It is also possible that only DPP and MCP will emerge as the major parties. Each one having a stronghold as their core support. Few positions will be given to others but we will fall back to almost the same position. If we end up like the USA where they have two main parties, it will be worse, because it will be almost impossible for new and… Read more »

Fingo
Fingo
1 year ago
Reply to  Phiri

You and the writer of this article are missing the point completely: Having two major political parties does not mean the death of small parties. You still have them, only that they are called factions. In the US the Democrats and the Republicans are not just two political parties; they have a number of factions within them. This is a fact of life: Even in families we have factions. Factions will differ on some small points, but will agree on the main points. They compromise, and they move forward. This is how life goes on, not just in political parties.… Read more »

Ngombwax
Ngombwax
1 year ago

We’re a fucked up country. But to me, 50%+1 is light years better for the country than FPTP. Here’s why: the latter ended up producing a party that simply cared for a single tribe; since there is no tribe that’s anywhere close to being 50% of the population, the former system will advantage MORE than a single tribe, unless Ansah and co. are allowed to rig the voting system. To me, that’s progress. Already, the quota system is out! Mufuniranji umboni wina??

mboba
mboba
1 year ago

Madama Getrude nde anenepatu!!!

Thanks
Thanks
1 year ago

She is a brilliant writer. This is how to write in a paper like this one not the other bias piece of works that we sometimes see here that clearly show that they have been paid to write by politicians.

Veronica, keep it up

Mlaliki
Mlaliki
1 year ago

This article is very well put and you are ahead of this time. Unfortunately everyone is excited about what problems 50 plus one solves now but the reality is it is a bigger problem soon. A very unfortunate reality is that Malawians vote along tribal lines. This system will indeed send small parties and most likely the northern region into oblivion. Politics is a game of numbers hence this system might raise two large parties or God forbid we could end up going to the one party system because of greed. In order not to marginalise anyone probably we need… Read more »

Y R U sodiputs
1 year ago

Great piece of art. But what happens to the 80% of rural people with cell phones but little analytical skills? Not their fault but huge impact on elections and development.

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