Urban and rural vote: Myths In Malawi’s electioneering process

I have found thoughts by some commentators on the “rural” versus “town” interesting. I personally do not believe there is such a thing as an urban versus rural vote in Malawi; I think it is a myth that exist in the minds of politicians and may be academic arguments.

Often, the rural populace is premised to be the most likely to vote for a ruling political party; this assumption, I dare say is made on the basis that unlike their urban counterparts, rural folks are not sophisticated enough to make in depth analysis of politics as town people would do; in other words, you get a feeling that they are gullible; they think with their stomachs and not with their brains – headless you may say. Usually, it is this thinking that make ruling parties brag, “We are the government of the poor (often meant rural) people not the rich” – as if to say, “we are the government of those who are ignorant; those who do not engage in unnecessary arguments – even when some of the arguments may be quite healthy”.

However, for ruling parties to brag of having their mandate to rule from poor, logic demands that their vote must be “national”, because Malawi is generally a poor dominant society; we may say that about 70% of the people that vote can be characterized as poor. Based on this argument, we can say that beside Kamuzu’s Banda’s independence vote, Bingu wa Mutharika’s candidature for presidency in 2009 is a nearest example of a president of a ruling party who was voted by a rural majority vote – rural meaning Malawians from all walks of life voted for him.

We do also know, however, that among the very people in the so called rural areas, who overwhelmingly voted for Bingu in 2009 actually rejected him in 2004 – UDF won with over 30% vote (largely in eastern region), against opposition’s combined vote of over 60% (largely, south, centre and north). It is obvious that the “rural vote myth” for a self-styled pro-poor government fell away here.

My take is that social forces are more at play in the voting behaviour of Malawians than the reductionist rural-urban hypothesis; geopolitical and leadership quality factors are central. On the geopolitical front, the country’s reversal of Bingu’s pitiful 30 plus percent mandate in 2004, to the groundbreaking election in 2009, is a classic example of the homogeneous thinking in both “the rural” and “the urban” vote.

But in-depth analysis would show that the majority of the rural folks in the south-south, centre and north who shunned Bingu in 2004 actually voted for him in 2009 against the 30% plus in the eastern region that voted for him in 2004 but turning against him in 2009. Based on this example, can we say that these people are unsophisticated in their analysis of issues; are these characteristics of people that are blind and ignorant?


The reality is that the country is far from abandoning ethnic and tribal cards in political choices of their leaders; actually the rallying behind on Bingu in 2009, by the north-vote, was the absence of Chihananic type of leadership; whereas the section 65 versus budget by John Tembo, and his alliance with Bakili Muluzi in the run-up to 2009 general elections alienated his constituents.

The rural-urban voting dichotomy is invalidated further by the fact many rural families have political barometers in town, in the name of sons and daughters, who have become opinion makers for their families beyond what ruling political parties  and any other political party for that matter may wish to propagate. The sons and daughters who feel the economic pinch in town communicate to the folks in the village not just on economic issues but their political opinions as well – and thus directly or indirectly shape the rural.

It is not uncommon for rural folks in the village to ask their awards about politics, “kodi ndale zikuyenda bwanji?”, and the responses can be persuasive enough. Of course this also goes hand in hand with complimentary non-biased sources of information such as radios.

Thus a party clinging to a stereotypic view of Malawians may be in for a rude shock come May; Malawians are still predictable in some ways, but have a right to be unpredictable; and if they chose a pattern than the analyzed above – who can blame them?

Finally, it would also help to understand that an average Malawian has already made a decision on their preferred candidates in the presidential race 3-5months before the election; the margin of the undecided vote is such small; and yet, in an election where we have four able candidates – every campaign meeting counts and so does every vote. After all is said and done, Malawi must go on; it is bigger than any individual winning or losing presidential candidate.

  •  Ndumanene Devlin Silungwe (Psychologist)

(PsyD, Student: California Southern University)

Saint John of God Hospital

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