Towards ‘Hakuna Matata’ in UDF: Malawi road to 2014 polls

With a Malawi general election looming just over the horizon in May 2014, it should not be surprising that leadership conventions are now being bandied about. They are part of the calculus of political party readiness to do battle in nineteen months’ time. The prize: either parliamentary supremacy or state house tenancy or both. The political stakes don’t get any higher.

The governing People’s Party (PP) recently held its own convention and, unsurprisingly, its founder Mrs. Joyce Banda, already State President, emerged the winner to be the party’s candidate for President of the Republic of Malawi in 2014. Other parties hoping to compete, notably the United Democratic Front (UDF), the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) – all of them recent governing parties – would be remiss to stay out of the convention sweepstakes. All their leaders and office bearers need the endorsement of conventions to effectively gear up for 2014 and to carry on thereafter. It is not rocket science.

The United Democratic Front (UDF) intends to hold its convention at the end of this month, and the DPP hopes to have one in December. Not much has been said publicly about an imminent MCP convention. The question, though, is: without conventions, with what legitimacy can candidates represent their parties in the elections of May 2014? Indeed without conventions, with what legitimacy will individual officials maintain their party positions after the elections into the next political term? Mandate renewal, through a democratic convention, is clearly the legitimizing factor.

UDF leadership race: Convention on October 31

 Intra-Party, UDF Unity

It has been suggested that UDF unity is a necessary prerequisite for holding a convention. In interviews recently, Mr. Friday Jumbe, interim president of the party, and Mr. Sam Mpasu, another prominet party member, have suggested that a UDF convention should not convene before two recently emerged factions have ironed out their differences. One faction is led by Mr. Jumbe himself and the other is assumed to prefer Mr. Austin (Atupele) Muluzi, minister of economic planning in the Joyce Banda administration and son of former UDF and Malawi leader, Bakili Muluzi. Mr. Jumbe and Mr. Mpasu suggest that party unity is necessary before going to the floor of a convention to choose or endorse the party leadership and platform.

The Jumbe-Mpasu view implies that the convention ought to be simply a rubber-stamping exercise, formalising and entrenching deals arrived at in backrooms and powerful corridors. When stripped to its bare essentials, this view does not uphold the democratic quality of conventions. With this view, grassroots party delegates have their minds already made up for them by ‘senior’ party members – although how they became ‘senior’ without being so chosen, or mandated by a convention, is itself a question for debate.

If partisans do not already agree on who will carry their party flag into the general elections as their leader — well, let the convention solve precisely that problem. In the United States they call it a brokered convention when no single candidate in the Democratic or Republican parties has emerged with a clear majority of delegates during the primary season leading up to a convention. In Malawi we do not have pre-convention primary seasons and, anyway, there is nothing undemocratic about a brokered convention as long as the result is an accurate reflection of the will of the majority of delegates. The travesty is to suggest that since there is no clear ‘winner’ before the convention, therefore there should be no convention! In fact, having no clear answer as to who will lead the party into the general elections makes the convention more, not less, necessary; and, at this point when the Malawi elections are fast drawing closer, more urgent.

It is particularly perverse and undemocratic to oppose the holding of a convention on the basis simply that one has not yet achieved party unity behind one’s own candidature. If the respective camps were divided over policy, one might pay more attention to the dissenting voices against holding the convention imminently. But, alas, the UDF division has all the hallmarks of being based, not on the principles that will inform the party platform, but rather on the principals i.e. the people in leadership. The state of leadership disarray in which the UDF now is, is precisely what requires a convention sooner rather than later; as opposed to negating the need for one.

 Funding the UDF Convention

Organizer Mrs. Lillian Patel has said the party has raised, or is in the process of raising, the required K35,000,000 for the proposed UDF convention. The Jumbe-Mpasu camp suggests the money has been donated by former president Bakili Muluzi to promote the leadership candidature of his son, Atupele Muluzi. This is one of the reasons the Jumbe-Mpasu faction opposes the holding of this convention if one is to read the tea leaves of the contents of their interviews.

It is not known whether, indeed, the senior Muluzi has donated money for the convention. However, in a party and country where there are virtually no laws or by-laws regulating the funding of political party activities and, specifically, conventions; it seems rather pointless to be quibbling about who is funding the UDF convention and what their motives might be. Indeed there have not been announced any restrictions on the Jumbe-Mpasu faction to, itself, contribute funds for the convention to promote their own candidatures, their delegates or those they favour for other party positions. In addition, the senior Muluzi has a long track record of contributing funds to UDF activities and it is puzzling that this is suddenly a problem today when it never seemed to bother anybody else, at least not publicly, before.

If one faction has a greater capability to bring ‘its’ delegates to the convention, as has been offered as another reason for not holding a UDF convention imminently, how does that problem get resolved by a refusal to have the convention at all? And why does the other faction simply not improve on its own capacity to bring ‘its’ delegates to the convention, too? The convention should not be held hostage merely because one faction is not ready. Indeed that camp’s very lack of convention readiness suggests it is not yet ready to lead the rank and file and, by extension, to govern the country altogether. Perhaps if there were suggestions that government money was being illegally used for this purpose, Atupele Muluzi being a serving cabinet minister, this might be a worthwhile objection. As it is, this seems to be a red herring to detract attention and achieve a self-servig postponment or cancellation of a much-needed palaver.

 Regaining the state of Hakuna Matata

UDF partisans have waited too long to have the leadership question and factionalism in their party resolved. The longer the status quo remains, the less the chances of the party making a noticeable showing in the general elections of 2014. As such, it is incumbent upon all interim office holders in the party to support the idea of holding this convention now to resolve, once and for all, these differences and to eliminate these unwieldy camps. It is way past time that interim office bearers had their positions regularized for a full term via free competition with others at the convention. Once this is done, the party can start gearing up for electoral battle with other parties to win the favour of Malawi’s electors for the presidency and parliamentary seats in May, 2014.

How long does the UDF have to wait before everyone in it is ready, more so when what is meant by ‘being ready’ is synonymous with being sure to be chosen the leader? UDF partisans are tired of these divisions and hunger for a return to the state of political hakuna matata that prevailed in the glory days. God, I miss those days; lyo lyo lyo lyo!!!


*Tom Likambale is a Malawian writer based in Canada

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