Mid last week, there were two missed calls on my mobile phone—ten minutes apart. I saw them two hours later. Unfortunately, I could not call back because they were both from private numbers. Did I miss the running mate train?
On a more serious note, now that nominations for various elective political offices are behind us, the debate is mostly centred on which party has the strongest pair to secure tenure at Plot Number One. Pundits are throwing around all kinds of permutations based on registered voters and voting blocs. The banter is also on how many candidates each political party is fielding as well as whether political parties that are in an electoral alliance—supporting one presidential candidate—will fight as bedfellows for parliamentary and ward councilor positions. Here I will only focus on whether running mates are game-changers.
In Malawi yes, they are but elsewhere they are not. In the United States, for example, there was a hot debate about who would be Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton’s number two for the campaign in 2016. For the two, political observers said it depended on each candidate’s goal—both for the remainder of the presidential campaign and after November 8 that year. The observers widely agreed that the most important characteristic to look for in a running mate is the ability to serve as president in the event of unforeseen circumstances, like a president’s death, incapacitation, resignation or impeachment. One of such situations availed itself in Malawi in 2012 when JB became president for the remainder of Bingu’s presidential tenure. These unforeseen circumstances are not just a figment of anybody’s imagination even here. They are real. One of our neighbours—Zambia—has also had more than its fair share of such. So the importance of vetting running mates cannot be overemphasised.
Trusted political advisers usually vet potential running mates to see if a given running mate will help or hurt the presidential ticket with voters in general or with a key voting group. Particularly if the competition is rife, strategists will look to the running mate as a potential game-changer. This looks very much the case in Malawi this year. But in this year’s elections, the electoral advantage most commonly associated with the choice of a running mate is geographic as opposed to demographic. In other words, campaign strategists have been looking for candidates who can deliver their ‘home belt’ or regional votes. MCP’s Lazarus Chakwera and UDF’s Atupele Muluzi’s choice of Sidik Mia and Frank Mwenifumbo, respectively, fall in this category. UTM Party’s Saulos Chilima roped in Michael Usi for the same consideration. Even electoral alliance partnerships—Aford’s Enock Chihana with UTM Party and Freedom Party’s Khumbo Kachali who will support Chakwera were struck with this consideration in mind.
But the same can hardly be said to be the case for APM’s choice of Everton Chimulirenji. In APM’s own words, he picked Chimulirenji because the Ntcheu North East legislator knows the roles of a vice president and a deputy president unlike, and by implication, an affront on all other ‘gossip list’ candidates such as Kondwani Nankhumwa, Bright Msaka, Goodall Gondwe, Samuel Tembenu, Rosemary Mkandawire and Chimunthu Banda.
Indeed until a few minutes before his unveiling, Chimulirenji was nowhere near anybody’s gossip lit as a front runner for the prized position of running mate. People have been arguing that although Chimulirenji comes from the same district as Chilima, he is politically deficient to effectively counter the UTM Party president.
Admitted APM had a fringe reason for the choice of a running mate. It is not to deliver votes. That is why there is an outcry in DPP. The din of noise in the blue camp against Chimulirenji confirms that the competition in this election is stiff and the party’s rank and file does not see APM’s choice as having the political weight to deliver the much needed regional votes that DPP badly needs to win the presidency. While some argue Chimulirenji can split Chilima’s support in Ntcheu, others see him as hurting rather than helping DPP’s presidential ticket.
To the extent that the party gurus are discontented with Chimulirenji, there is now a strong underground reaction to undermine him. Stories that he can barely read and speak English fluently are published for that reason. His failure to prove his critics wrong by not going on State controlled MBC TV, for example, to prove the doubting Thomases wrong, solidifies their fear. But what more can Chimulirenji’s haters do? It’s now done and dusted. At this late hour, Chimulirenji can only be replaced in the event of some unforeseen circumstances or if he resigns.
Maybe, just maybe the DPP’s rank and file can demonstrate that they have the mettle to prevail on APM to coerce his preferred running mate to do just that.