UTMCP Tonse Alliance and the road ahead

President Dr Lazarus Chakwera and his Vice Dr Saulos Chilima

By Voice of Micah

For the first time in Malawi, there is an alliance government with the Malawi Congress Party providing leadership. The new government is expected to deliver on a wide range of expectations including creation of one million jobs, universal fertilizer subsidy, raising the tax-free band, improved social services, and eradication of systemic corruption. However, the optimism needs to be tempered with cautious realism. Alliance governments tend to be less effective in delivering on most of the voters’ expectations.

Internal and external constraints often compromise their ability to deliver effectively. Noteworthy also is that alliance governments are essentially provisional, hence transitional. Consequently, they suffer from lack of the much-needed internal policy cohesion. Also, characteristic are multiple power points for reference and conflicting agendas within the overarching agenda under which they were elected, something like “governments” within the Government. A retreat from the overarching agenda has the potential for corresponding shift from the Tonse of the citizens to the Tonse of the respective alliance partners, with each questing for their share and visibility.

Inside the UTMCP Tonse Alliance

The world over, formation of alliances or coalitions always depends on the prevailing political context. Alliances can be pre or post electoral in nature. Pre-electoral alliances are not necessarily for governance. Their primary objective is to increase chances for electoral victory at the polls. As such they do not guarantee government performance. The measure of their success is the extent to which they manage to mobilize the electorate in their favour to win the vote and capture the state house.

On the other hand, post electoral alliances are usually for either political stability or to ensure government agenda prevails especially in parliament. As stated earlier, whether pre or post electoral in nature, alliances are transitory and deliver less on campaign pledges. In our case, it would be of interest to find out real reasons behind the UTMCP Tonse Alliance. This is important for purposes of gauging realistic public expectations.

For some voters, and probably many, it was not necessarily prospects of good performance that prompted their vote for the Chakwera-Chilima card. Rather, it was an opportunity to get rid of the inept and corrupt DPP administration. That now the Tonse Alliance is in charge, the sustenance of their legitimacy depends on demonstrated performance and not the ongoing rhetoric about the failures of the DPP. That litany was for the campaign period. It is time to rolls up the sleeves and do the work. 

Dr Chilima flanked by Michael Usi (left) and Sidik Mia

The UTMCP Tonse Alliance is pre-electoral. Irrespective of external display in language and action, politicians just like the captains of the industry, are often consumed and driven by self-interest. The passion for power and public office are endemic to the psychic of a politician. Benefits accrued to the public are only secondly in the order of priorities. Undoubtedly, self-interest was the driving force behind the formation of the Tonse Alliance.

Notwithstanding issues around the May 2019 elections, it is clear that neither MCP nor UTM alone could have dislodged the DPP in the fresh polls. Any attempt to do so in the June 2020 fresh polls would have been suicidal. The 20% difference between Chakwera (59.34%) and Mutharika (39.92) proves point that thanks to the 50+1 electoral requirement and the alliance, DPP would have still carried the day at the polls on the 23rd of June. For Chakwera and Chilima, such a loss would have spelt the death of their presidential ambitions.

President Chakwera would have been barred by the MCP constitution having contested for two times and lost. The MCP constitution only allows more than two runs for office to a sitting president of which Chakwera was not at the time. Thus, the Courts’ judgment had given Chakwera a new lease of life not to be wasted. The most promising formula to deliver an electoral result in his favour was imperative, without which his dream would have been gone forever.

For Chilima, in theory, he still had a chance to run again in 2025 were he to contest and lose in the June 2020 polls. But it’s unlikely he would have been a formidable force against the DPP in 2025. A five-year interlude would have been long enough to decimate the UTM with its meager four Members of Parliament. Therefore, self-interest and the urgency for political survival were fundamental to both leaders, hence the formation of an alliance.

Of course, there were other factors, public opinion, for example. Events subsequent to the May 2019 elections had clearly shown that the majority of citizens were tired of the inept and corrupt DPP administration. Change was the mantra on the lips. Simultaneous to this mantra was a subtle consensus that the Chakwera-Chilima would be the most promising electoral card to deliver that change.

Thus, self-interest and political survival plus citizens’ desire for change and the subtle endorsement of the Chakwera-Chilima pair, all these acted as ferment and catalyst for the formation of the UTMCP Tonse Alliance. From the foregoing, it is evident that this alliance is a marriage of convenience, a coincidence of diverse interests whose denominator was the blatant failure of the DPP administration. There is no real ideological cohesion, and with multiple power points for reference, the alliance is unlikely to stand the test of time.

The road ahead

As indicated earlier, there are both internal and external challenges to the UTMCP Tonse Alliance. External challenges revolve around campaign pledges. Top on the list are universal fertilizer subsidy, creation of one million jobs, and the raising of the tax-free band. The 2020/21 agricultural season is already here with farmers eagerly expecting to access inputs like fertilizer and seed at reduced costs.

Anything short of the campaign pledges is bound to exert serious dents on the alliance government. Similarly, job creation is top on the list, and there is urgent need for government to demonstrate progress through verifiable indicators. For internal challenges, the fight against corruption is one of them. While there are commendable steps, the real test is how to deal with partners within the UTMCP Tonse Alliance who are or will be found on the wrong side of the law. The handling of such cases will be a litmus test for the seriousness of the alliance on corruption and the much-needed autonomy of the relevant oversight bodies.

Also concerning is the emergent modus operandi in the presidency itself. Already there are serious questions. While the Constitution provides for a presidential model with the executive powers residual in the president, the Tonse Alliance modus operandi suggests a de facto shift to a semblance of parliamentary model, with a titular president, and a prime ministerial alike in charge of government and all reporting protocols of the cabinet. This has all risks of constitutional distortions, with potential for collision within the presidency. The modus operandi suggests a co-presidency structure pretty unsupported by any law, with a duality of power points and reporting lines, overt or covert.

Perhaps the most perturbing question is about the political future of both Chakwera and Chilima. At one of the campaign rallies in Blantyre shortly after the launch of the UTMCP Tonse Alliance, Chilima indicated that after Chakwera, he would be next to run for the presidency. The statement raised questions which are yet to be resolved. Later when questioned by Brian Banda during a television interview to affirm or deny the insinuation that he would be a one-term president, President Chakwera was ambivalent. What seems to be certain is that none of the two is sure or transparent on the 2025 candidature. This has serious implications for the alliance and the retention of the state house.

To start with President Chakwera, assuming that in order to rope Chilima into the pre electoral alliance the trade-offs included one term presidency to pave way for Chilima to run in 2025, that decision remains shaky for a number of reasons. First is the stability of the alliance itself. Since this decision would seem to be personal, it remains unclear how it would fit into the strategic interests of the party which has been out of power for close to three decades.

Besides it is the prerogative of the party to determine a presidential candidate through a convention. Hence even if Chakwera would opt out of the race for 2025, there is no guarantee that MCP would respect a commitment made outside the party’s constitutional provisions in favour of the candidature of an alliance partner. Thirdly, even if the party would warm up to this idea, it is doubtful the power base could welcome it. Since independence, MCP has never for once failed to feature a presidential candidate even during the most difficult times in its political history.

It is pretty contradictory that while enjoying the incumbency a decision would be not to contest in the next election. The most probable scenario will be an outright rejection of that proposal by the membership. Thus, with or without Chakwera, MCP is very unlikely to forgo and see its candidate not feature on the presidential ballot in 2025.

Therefore, it is much safer for the UTM to assume that their lead partner in the alliance will feature a candidate in the next election notwithstanding whatever personal tradeoffs were agreed during the negotiations for the alliance. On the part of MCP, unless otherwise, it would be realistic to expect that UTM is unlikely to remain inactive banking on its turn to run in 2025.Unless clarified, grey areas like these will shortly prove decisive for the resilience of the Tonse Alliance in the run up to the next polls.

Dr Joyce Banda and Usi

For the UTM, there is another huddle, probably trickier particularly if the expectation is that Vice President Chilima will remain the torchbearer in the next elections.  By 2025 Chilima will have served ten years as first Vice President of the Republic of Malawi under the Constitution. Even if MCP were to resolve not to feature a presidential candidate in 2025 in favour of UTM, it is not so obvious that, the candidate would be Vice President Saulos Chilima.

This brings us to section 83(3) of the Constitution which says; “The President, the first vice President and the second vice President may serve in their respective capacities a maximum of two consecutive terms, but when a person is elected or appointed to fill a vacancy in the office of President or vice President, the period between that election or appointment and the next election of a President shall not be regarded as a term”.

The interpretation of this section by the High Court in the case of the “State v Ex Parte Muluzi and Another ((2 of 2009)) [2009] MWHC 13 (16 May 2009), is unequivocal. Vice President Chilima stands barred from contesting for any office of the Presidency by 2025. Critical to this interpretation is the phrase, “in their respective capacities”. According to the High Court, this phrase is unique to the Constitution of Malawi when compared to other jurisdictions.

Ordinarily, it is observed, a vice President would be eligible to contest for the office of the President when the President’s tenure comes to an end. But, says the High Court, “our Constitution bars this”. Demonstrating the rationale for this phrase, the Court goes on to say; “If it were not so, one could, in ascending order, be second vice President, then be first vice President, and then the President, or in a descending order, be the President, first vice President, and then the second vice President. This, in effect, would have permitted a person to serve the Presidency for thirty years, or more”.

The phrase “in their respective capacities,” therefore, bars an officer even when he changes capacity between the offices. This view is re-enforced, says the judgment, by the fact that the pre-constitution proceedings and debates in the National Assembly and all resolutions at Constitutional Conferences endorsed the limitation of terms of the Presidency to two. The High Court concludes; “It is therefore our judgment that the Constitution limits the terms, that a person who served as the President, first vice President, or second vice President, to a maximum of two consecutive terms”.

There are three possible options to secure the 2025 presidential candidature for Vice President Chilima. A judicial review of this judgment, especially the interpretation of section 83(3), is one of such options. If not this option, then a push for Constitutional amendment is also a possibility, notwithstanding the most likely competing political interests favouring the status quo.

Then there is a third option, a resignation somewhere midway thereby terminating a potentially second substantive term which if concluded would effectively bar him under the 2009 judgment. Of course, there would be serious reputational risks requiring meticulous mitigation to safeguard public trust and confidence.

In the event that none of the three succeeds, Vice President Chilima stands barred by 2025 from contesting for any of the three offices of the Presidency. It is not evident whether this was noted and negotiated prior to the signing of the alliance agreement. And if this was done, still it is not clear to what extent the leadership structure and party membership is aware of the contents of the agreement and the implications thereof.

At least for now it can safely be concluded that, in light of this judgment, for the 2025 tripartite elections, UTM faces the options of either maintaining the status quo with the MCP, possibly negotiate for a merger, or secede and later negotiate for an alliance where its candidate, which might not necessarily be Chilima, could be on the presidential ballot.