By Eugenio Njoloma*
For the very first time in the history of Malawi, a presidential election has been declared invalid by a constitutional court of five judges. On Monday 3rd February 2020, judges Ivy Kamanga, Dingiswayo Madise, Healthy Potani, Redson Kapindu, and Mike Tembo tainted the legitimacy of the second term of Peter Mutharika’s presidency.
The Malawi Electoral Commission’s lack of transparency and accountability in the handling of the 21 May 2019 elections compromised the entire process. According to the court outcome, it meant that no one on the long list of the presidential candidates won the contest.
In this vein, not even Malawi Congress Party’s claims of “electoral triumph” hold any ground. In fact, according to the ruling, every presidential candidate possesses the right to declare victory of his own. Therefore, the advancement of messages of gross electoral victimization as if one owns the entire electorate is as unfortunate as being the ‘fraud’ itself.
As the clock ticks on to the end of the 150 days, there is no time to propagandize the electoral process again. Rather, the focus by those aspiring to acquire the top job should be on building a lasting desirable legacy for generations to come. Otherwise, posing to be politically correct without any solid basis is a recipe for disaster. Remember, this country is engrossed with too many political surprises.
To begin with, the nullification of the presidential vote took Peter Mutharika and his DPP by surprise. In fact, feelings that their political power could easily evaporate in less than 150 days created a climate of significant anxiety in their camp. It is even possible to insinuate that Mutharika’s face developed imaginary wrinkles that seem to exist when one substitutes body lotion for bathroom soap.
The only solace for the president included his retention of the presidency although the ruling effectively dampens his popularity and augments his irrelevance for Malawi’s political future. Moreover, the supersonic speed which he used to seek legal clarification of the ruling, which even failed instantly, reveal a significant amount of political desperation.
For a second consecutive election, MCP continues to lose elections. This time around, the loss happened even after the business tycoon, Sidik Mia, had heavily invested in the campaign prior to the election. More so, the political backing of Joyce Banda and Khumbo Kachali did not yield any meaningful result.
The elevation of Everton Chimulirenji to the vice presidency position probably constituted the biggest political circus in democratic Malawi. This is a political clown who could have become a state president if Peter Mutharika got impeached, resigned or died in office. In no time, there is no Chimulirenji anywhere near the presidency and Saulos Chilima is back to the vice presidency position.
And even before the court’s decision deprived Chimulirenji of his high political status, Mutharika had within days of his second tenure realized that the man he had picked at a roundabout in Blantyre, probably just to frustrate those that had showed extreme hunger for power in DPP, was a real joke.
A year prior to the elections, no one ever thought that Malawi’s politics would be pitched to a different height. The emergence of UTM lit the political path. With significant rapidity, Chilima won the hearts and minds of so many people in the country. Then how could he only obtain 20% of the vote? Was it because of the regionalistic voting tendencies socially known as the ‘wakwithu syndrome’?
These political surprises could all be blamed on the incompetence of the Malawi Electoral Commission in presiding over an election. This, thus, explains why the bereaved parties undertook a litigation process to ensure justice is served and saved.
With UTM and MCP emerging triumphant, hopes for a smooth political ride ahead have already began to wane. Sentiments of disapproval, particularly of Chilima by staunch followers of MCP, have already began to create a considerable political gulf between the two parties (UTM and MCP) even before a formalization of ‘the alliance.
Yes, within hours of the ruling, for example, an outpour of calls for an electoral alliance between MCP and UTM filled the country’s political sphere. Mostly, these have been Malawians who want to see change by simply substituting DPP with any other party. Thus, their interest mainly lies in the change and what happens later, only God will take care of it.
In their construal, the preferred arrangement for the electoral alliance is to have Lazarus Chakwera as President and Chilima as his vice. They think this arrangement is politically sound because, they say, MCP is a big party, it has a larger following and has many representatives in the national assembly. Moreover, they say, it possesses abundant structures at the grassroot level.
Nonetheless, UTM’s, Chilima significant political relevance by commanding a large following, considering that it was his first time to stand for the highest political office and that his political movement had just spanned one year. It is thanks to his admirable charisma that many believed in his leadership qualities.
While some prominent members of MCP possess a mammoth of personal hatred for Chilima, if their leaked WhatsApp conversation at the beginning of February 2020 is to be trusted, many other MCP supporters, particularly those lying in the distance to top positions think Saulos Chilima’s inclusion remains the only way to acquire electoral victory given his command of wide bases of electoral support.
What is worth noting, though, is that it is only MCP, which has been busy propagating about the electoral marriage. While Chilima appeared open to an electoral alliance in his first post ConCourt press briefing, the accuracy of the interpretation of his message by the majority of political zealots remains very lame.
The UTM leader has been quite adamant about his position on electoral alliance. He seems politically sane when he trashes out political winds of uncertainty, which seem to drive political energies of the majority of the opposite political party supporters.
He believes that “If we are going to go into an alliance and I front a position for myself, I should be faulted. If we start by placing leaders, the agenda will be lost. Let us discuss first what we want for this nation, how we will achieve it and finally which leaders will take us there.”
These sentiments expose a stark difference between the leaderships of UTM and MCP. For Chilima, his concern borders on what the alliance will do for Malawi and not necessarily on the role of the alliance in removing the DPP from power.
Therefore, there is blatant decisiveness in UTM’s leadership and the basic politics that follows the wishes of the majority in MCP. On the other hand, though, Chakwera seems to be personally open to pacts with any party in the opposition. He appears willing to discuss terms with only the stumbling block being the people that surround him. These are the people, including those that staunchly follow the party, who will trust their loyalty so instinctively that they will vote for anyone or anything on the presidential position.
It is, nonetheless, worth noting that the court ruling has been pivotal in stoking the democratic process in the country. Without it, Malawi could have had an illegitimate presidency. However, it does not mean that it has been the panacea for gross political problems suffered by Malawi. The squabbles on who is to lead the alliance constitute significant indications of those problems.
Using a clearer lense, one could argue that Malawi is at this political standstill because of political greed by those in power. According to a Facebook post by one political scientist, Henry Chingaipe, all this is because of the politics of ‘big man wamkulu kwambiri’ surrounded by loudmouth retainers perpetrating a self-serving ideology of exclusion based on parochial identities such as tribe, regionalism, elements of religion.
Sustained by the appropriation of rents (freebies and legit and illegit privileges) by the Patron (the Big man), rent-seeking behaviours (of the sycophant supporters and retainers) and rent-sharing (managed by lesser elites that gravitate around the ‘Big man’).
The Big man perches on a high political dais in untold glory. This is what it has been in Malawi since the Kamuzu days. This is what they, the political elites of our time, are fighting for. Who to get to the dais to control and manage patronage that flows from the state? Not our future. Not our development. The politics of the belly.”
*Njoloma is a regular contributor to The Lamp magazine. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org