Party financing in Malawi: The best kept secret?

With the advent of multiparty democracy, Malawi has witnessed a proliferation of political parties. Just before the 1994 general elections, only five political parties existed. In 1999, eleven political parties contested in the presidential and parliamentary elections (PPE). In the third PPEs that took place on 20 May 2004, fifteen parties took part out of the 31 officially registered political parties. In 2009, this number increased to 17 of the 37 registered political parties then.

As we head for 2014, it is apparent that the number of political parties will increase. Of course, no one questions the place of political parties in a democracy. As a matter of fact, political parties are increasingly being regarded as public utilities for their role in contemporary democracies is self-evident. It is almost inconceivable to have a functioning democracy without such kind of institutions.

On the question of party financing

As complex organizations that are at the heart of democracy, political parties require resources to perform their functions. Parties need to maintain their offices, interact with the citizenry, develop policy platforms, hold their conventions, and market their candidates and their agenda, among other things. In all these, money is the all important oil that keeps the party machinery going. Thus, just as we cannot question the proliferation of political parties, we can also easily appreciate the importance of these parties to have financial resources if they are to be viable.

MCP woman Mai Dinala joins ruling PP women dance
MCP woman Mai Dinala joins ruling PP women dance

Unfortunately, the way political parties in Malawi are financed is what one can describe as the “best kept secret”.

Public funding and its challenges

Of course, few things are known. For instance, we are aware that those political parties that secure more than 10% of the national vote in parliamentary elections are entitled to state funding according to Section 40(2) of the constitution. In some instances, this has also been understood to mean at least 10% of representation in Parliament.

However, we do not really know who determines the actual amount to be shared and what factors are taken into account in arriving at the share for political parties. It is also not clear for what purposes do political parties use this public funding and how they account for it.

Even more, what happens when the political configuration changes in Parliament in between elections? For instance, is the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) still entitled to the share that was determined just after the 2009 elections? Does the United Democratic Front (UDF) still qualify for public funding? Can the People’s Party (PP) now benefit from this kind of funding? How about the Alliance for Democracy (AFORD) with its two MPs? They (AFORD) fail to meet the required threshold but do they not represent the people?

Private funding: holding democracy at ransom

The state funding aside, we are also aware that political parties in Malawi, as it is the case elsewhere, do also survive on private funding. This comes in many forms. Membership fees are one source but not worth reckoning with given the fact that no party in Malawi sales membership cards. The larger portion of private funding comes from the founders and the so-called well-wishers and ‘senior members of the party’. Interestingly, there are no laws obliging political parties in Malawi to disclose their private financiers. Consider for instances how the DPP put up a very costly election campaign 2009. Where did that money come from?

The absence of legal frameworks governing private financing of political parties is a huge deficiency in a democracy for although money is an asset in politics, it can at the same time be a liability. The relationship between money and politics remains one characterized by contention and controversy in every democratic state.

It is not only the question of access to resources that can skew and endanger the democratic play field; it is also how those resources are acquired, who provides them, under what terms and how they are used that is equally critical. As the saying goes, those who pay the piper call the tune. It is very likely for a party to be held at ransom by those who finance it. In the worst case scenario, it is even possible to have a party in power that is remotely controlled by actors outside it and whose (actors’) interests are inimical to society at large.

Thus, in some instances, how parties practice or fail to practice intra-party democracy has to some extent been influenced by the way those parties are financed. For instance, it is obvious that for quite some time, former President, Bakili Muluzi was the sole financier of the UDF. Unsurprisingly, he ran the affairs of the UDF as if it were his personal estate.

Who, for instance, could have successfully challenged him at the party’s convention which he had financed? The UDF is not alone. Consider the case of the DPP. At one point, the party’s former treasurer general is reported to have said that party finances were the preserve of the party president, the late Bingu wa Mutharika.

We may not be able to corroborate this but one thing is clear: with the president of the party being the state president, the party enjoyed a wide range of “well-wishers” who financed the DPP. This was not necessarily because those “well-wishers” were convinced of its policies and/or ideologies but mainly because their connection with the party in power paid other dividends. In other words, they were “well-wishers” for their own “well wishes”.

We now see the same trend emerging in the PP. Their convention was in excess of K42 million sourced from “well-wishers and members of the party”, according to Grace Maseko, the chairperson of the party’s convention sub-committee for publicity. One wonders as to whether if PP was to organize its convention last year, there could have been this tremendous “good will”. Put it differently, if the MCP was to organize its convention now, would they easily raise K42 million?

Looking into the future, it is obvious, at least to me that Malawi is in an urgent need of a clear and robust legal framework that will ensure that party financing does not degenerate into a liability to the democratic cause. Yes, parties need money but money should not hold our democracy at ransom.--Source; The Lamp

*Magolowondo is a political analyst based in Lilongwe. For feedback:  [email protected]

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