Malawians, urban and rural are looking forward to next week’s elections.
On the back of poorly articulated manifestos and a theatre of innuendos, insults and threats this political campaign has been the most entertaining, informative and colourful since 1994. The Justice Ansah headed electoral commission has the potential to join the hallowed list of Brown Chimphamba [Referendum, 1993] and Anastazia Msosa [(Malawi Electoral Commission MEC), 1993- 1997 and 2005 – 2012] as good eggs if it pulls off a ‘free and fair’ and rig-free election despite the constraints on its budget.Incidentally, some observers noted a decline in the efficiency of MEC to adequately monitor the elections between 1994 and 2004, with the 2004 elections held to be the least free and fair ever.
This note is not about which is the best option; every Malawian has his or her chosen one by now.
Our development partners often remind us how much the corruption in our political systems hamstring democracy.With all elections since 1999 subject to fierce postelection contestations about their fairness. It is held by our development partners, and a substantial section of the electorate alike, that the elections are likely to be rigged. What is usually forgotten is the fact that we inherited our systems from our development partners, in our case the British. And our 1994 constitution borrowed a pinch of USA presidentialism; hybridism at its best.
Anyone familiar with the satirical programme Yes Minister, later Yes Prime Minister will be painfully aware of how the hapless government minister was played with by his civil servants. His policies were combed until they suited the men, and in those days, it was usually, in civil service suits. Of course, Yes Minister was only a programme. But it reflected and still reflects the dynamic between politicians and the civil service in Britain.
The USA attorney general’s refusal to testify before Congress, a constitutional obligation which many have argued is the foundation of USA democracy, complicates this further by illustrating how interest groups are not uniquely Malawian. Importantly, it casts doubt on any hope that the USA has viable lessons on how Malawi can strengthen its democracy.
Our interest groups include chiefs (who have been openly seen canvasing on behalf of one party or other when all they had to do was stay neutral and welcome all to their areas.
However, this note is about the most influential interest groups of all in Malawi: civil servants. And here civil servants include those in the parastatals, teachers, lecturers, doctors, nurses. Although fully aware of the apparent contradiction, we would include the police and army, though clearly in terms of semantics, non-civil, as part of this interest group. Let us call them ‘state paid workers’. This collection of state paid workers (SPWs) is the most influential group in ensuring free and fair elections.
In the African context, the events in South Africa, where parastatal heads and civil servants have been implicated in ‘State Capture’ activities should be a lesson to us; state and parastatal workers in South African government departments were interested and susceptible actors.
Electoral support officers of all grades populating our MEC are likely to come from this SPW group. Any irregularities are likely to be effected by elements of this group. Why is this so?
Simple. It is a matter of self-interest. Some civil servants and those in other sectors like the police, parastatals and the army have a vested interest in seeing one party win. In the case of the incumbent party, it is because over the longevity of the tenure in government these actors have developed patronage links with those in power. Cashgate attests to this. The activities of some parastatals is so obvious that we do not need to name them. In the case of some of those wishing the opposition to win, it is because they hope for the financial gains they were denied under the incumbent regime.
Our political culture promotes the activities of this hidden Third Force in elections. The sight of losers leaving their 4×4 vehicles, allowances and opulence behind is mirrored in our songs: Wina alira! (Someone will cry) or Zosiirana! Zosiirana! (Inheritance) Or Akulira akulira awa!(They are crying)!
So, for our monitor friends, some accompanied by the very elements of the Third Force we talk about here, the best they can do is to recognise the universality of human temptation and the fact that any systems, USA, UK or Malawian, can be exploited by humans. Monitors, Malawian or foreign must give Malawian voters a chance to exercise their democratic right in a ‘free and fair’ election. They should not be distracted by discredited arguments about African elections susceptibility to rigging. Elections are rigged because electoral systems are weak, under-funded, under-policed and – above all – poorly monitored.
The gaze of monitors must be on the points of systematic weaknesses. If they recognise that simple fact, then they will be useful, thorough monitors. They will oversee elections without fear or favour. The presence of efficient monitors, monitoring every step of the vote, reduces the likelihood of rigging. One often sees monitors rushing to their homes or hotels before ballot boxes are secure.
If on the other hand, all they see is a Malawi riven by ethnic divisions, as if there are no ethnic or other differencesin Europe or America and fail to see how those ethnic divisions are acted upon, translating into attempts at rigging, then they might as well spend their week swimming in Lake Malawi.
Malawians are voting for a party of their choice. Only good election monitoring will ensure that a hidden Third Force does nor rob them of their vote.
- John Chipembere Lwanda and George Lwanda