In the past three or so weeks, no phrase has graced media headlines more than ‘political alliances’.
Welcome to season of political alliances.
Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and United Democratic Front (UDF) set it all off a week ago with leaders Atupele Muluzi and Peter Mutharika sharing caps to announce their alliance.
Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and UTM Party are still in the kitchen. But at the end of it all, we know that an alliance between the two is on the cards.
But why this hype about alliances?
Expert define a political alliance as coming together of two or more parties before an election to increase their winning chances.
Since the return of multi-party democracy in 1993—after 31 years of Kamuzu Banda one partyism—Malawi has witnessed series of political alliances.
But what has stood out, in these political alliances, is a glaring fact that they have only worked to keep the incumbent in power than help the opposition win government.
The question, then, is: What is it in Malawi’s political alliances that only helps to keep the incumbent in power but fails to help the opposition?
In this first place, it is important to underline that political alliances, elsewhere, have helped the opposition win government.
In 2000, a group of opposition parties in Senegal joined forces as the Sopi (or “Change”) alliance. Together, they defeated the incumbent president and ended 40 years of one-party dominance.
In 2002, Kenya’s opposition repeated the trick. In the 1992 and 1997 elections, losing parties had cumulatively gained over 60% of the vote. But this time around, they grouped together as the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC). This united opposition swept to power, removing the party that had governed Kenya since 1963.
To mean, if well hatched, political alliances can do both: help incumbents maintain power and, also, help the opposition win power.
But why, in Malawi, does the opposition fail to use political alliances to take over government?
Wiseman Chijere Chirwa, professor of history at Chancellor College says there are a number of fundamental reasons behind this.
“In the first place, political alliances need to be well thought out before they are implemented. Those uniting need to find what they want to achieve and how they will do it,” he explains.
He adds that alliances need to be clear if their motive is just to unseat the government of the day or to be an alternative.
“Most coalitions have failed because they end up being not different from the incumbents that they are challenging. They are not well thought out,” he says.
He noted that that lack of a common ideology among the parties forming an alliance is another crucial factor behind failure.
“Almost all alliances have been motivated by an urgent need to unseat incumbents. They are not backed by any ideological commonality. They are so diverse in ways and beliefs, as a result, they fail to speak with a common voice,” he says.
Even timing, adds Chirwa, is another important factor that parties forming alliances ignore.
“The question is: When do you form an alliance? Parties need a common platform for time to easily reach out to voters and explain themselves clearly,” he says.
Even Blessings Chinsinga, associate professor of political science at Chancellor College, agrees with Chirwa.
“The challenge comes in because when an alliance is made at the last moment, parties fail to develop a joint platform to sell to the people. They end up being opportunists. They don’t offer development alternative at all, apart from unseating the incumbency,” he says.
Chinsinga, who gave an example of the MCP and UDF alliance in 2009 which was principally motivated by unseating Bingu wa Mutharika, added that another factor relates to uneven electoral field that opposition parties face.
“It is beyond comprehension that incumbents exploit every opportunity to their advantage. This works greatly to the disadvantage of the opposition,” Chinsinga said.
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