Are political alliances and coalitions effective in Malawi?

By John Chimombo*

Although the terms alliance and coalition are in practice used interchangeably, especially among politicians themselves, existing literature treats them as similar but conceptually different. In attempting to retain this conceptual distinction it is essential to highlight what is common to the two and how, if at all, their constitutive elements separate them. It is imperative to mention that alliances and coalitions are phenomena associated with multiparty democracy and scenarios in which no single party can win an outright majority of legislative seats or presidential polls.

Muluzi and Mutharika after sealing the deal

Alliances and coalitions, therefore, facilitate the formation of a power-sharing government to ensure stable governance and increased legitimacy to govern and defuse executive-legislative tensions. With the land mark Constitutional Court judgment that rendered the 2019 presidential elections null and recommends the use of 50+1 system of declaring a winner, it is obvious no single party can go solo and win the elections.

There is an avalanche of definitions and typologies in literature on alliance and coalitions and it is beyond the intent and scope of this article to exhaust them. A few will, however, suffice to show the vastness of scholarship from which the working definition in this article is derived. Broadly, alliances and coalitions manifest in different forms and for varied reasons. They can be formal or informal, transient or lasting, in fragile or stable regimes, operate at national or sub-national level, at the political level or between and among civic groups.

They may emerge to achieve altruistic (philanthropic or political) objectives or predatory interests in both democratic and autocratic governments. Generally, alliances and coalitions are formed in all societies for the attainment of social, political or economic aspirations otherwise unachievable by an individual organization, group or society.

This article adopts the definition of alliances and coalitions as the agreement to a joint cooperation and common agenda of a minimum of two political parties. Fundamental to the distinction between an alliance and coalition is the timing and basis of the agreement. An alliance is formed prior to elections to maximize votes, while a coalition refers to a post-election formation of political parties in parliament or government based on their respective electoral outcomes.

It is encouraging to note that in the past decades there has been a relative increase in studies devoted to alliances and coalitions in contemporary African politics. In spite of this increase, various aspects of this political phenomenon are still largely under studied. The majority of studies look at the causes of alliance and coalitions and this article will explain their effects on political party and democratic systems in Malawian politics.

Alliances and coalitions: Malawi Context

Apart from the 1999 and 2004 elections, in which both opposition parties and the party in government at the time the United Democratic Front (UDF) formed separate electoral alliances, the phenomenon of electoral alliances and coalitions has not gained popular appeal in Malawi. Thus, it is critical to start answering the question whether opportune junctures existed in Malawi for alliances and coalitions.

The answer is a big Yes!’ and more than once. Different opportunities emerged for potential alliance and coalition formations.

However, partners opted to align with each other or stay apart for various reasons including; revenge by opposition majorities against minority governments whose electoral victory was contested; a perceived common political enemy of the allied parties based on personal victimization, trumped up treason charges and/or political persecution; sheer malevolence or hunger for power – ‘if not us in government, then no one else’; and external influence of concerned civic and religious leaders pressuring for a change of government in the face of deteriorating socio-economic and political condition.

This time around the need for political alliance is eminent with the Constitutional court recommendation that the country has to deal away with the First-Past-The-Post system and adopt 50+1 system of declaring a winner in the presidential polls. Every Malawian who is eager for change would very much love to see the opposition parties forming an alliance to out seat the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, otherwise going solo to the fresh election cannot guarantee victory  to either of the big three political parties.

Lessons from history

Party working relationships have never been good to the subordinate parties in Malawi. The first electoral alliance, mooted prior to 1994, was led by the UDF with five smaller political parties. But none of the five small parties secured a parliamentary seat and disappeared into oblivion as their leaders were offered appointments in parastatals or diplomatic missions.

Later, it was the Alliance for Democracy (AFORD) which scooped all the seats in the Northern Region and some in the Central Region during the first multiparty elections. However, the party’s numbers in parliament started to dwindle after the then party leader, the late Chakufwa Chihana entered into an alliance with the then governing UDF. Currently, AFORD has only one Member of Parliament.

Another political party that suffered the consequences of political alliances and coalitions was the Republican Party (RP) of Gwanda Chakuamba which won 17 parliamentary seats during the 2004 general elections. But, when it entered into alliance with the then governing UDF, Republican Party failed to win not even a single seat in 2009 leading to the demise of RP. Very recently we have witnessed the fall of UDF the once giant ruling party that later turned into a formidable opposition bloc takes itself to a slow, inevitable end.

United Democratic Front threw democracy to the dogs and allowed itself to be swallowed by DPP, hence reducing itself to a briefcase party with only 6 members of parliament in the 2019 parliamentary polls.  At this juncture it should be stated that from past experiences coalitions of parties just destroy weaker parties a scenario that is rendering the notion of democracy consolidation difficult in Malawi.

Conclusion

Unlike most Africa’s emerging democracies where successive elections have often resulted in a majority vote for the president and the creation of a dominant governing party, Malawi offers unique insights. The results of the first three elections (1994, 1999 and 2004) resulted in the party in government having a minority of seats in the legislature. This provided a favourable and legitimate basis for formal coalition formations backed by section 80(5). However, parties opted to stay apart for various reasons top most among them is revenge by opposition majorities against a minority government whose electoral victory was contested, and sheer malevolence.

Chakwera and Chilima are also in alliance talks

Cumulatively, the effects of alliances and coalitions have led to a further decline in internal party cohesion as a result of lack of consultation by party executive in their quest to form a coalition, augmented fragmentation of the party system and increased volatility of executive-legislative relations, leading to instability in state governance and ultimately undermining democratic consolidation.

All in all, political alliances and coalitions are important as they boost the status of minority regimes to effectively put forward development agenda through policy formulation in the national assembly, but to the contrary in Malawi political alliances and coalitions do not benefit subordinate parties as they have proved to be detrimental to the growth and development of small parties.

Hence, the author’s stand that Malawi is not ready for political alliances and coalitions, but the existing state of affairs has put us at a cross-roads where we really need political alliances for a single party to carry the day with the yet to be adopted electoral system of 50+1 in a political set up where voting borders on regional and ethnic back grounds.

*Chimombo is a freelance writer. Feedback: 0884 174 202

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