Why the electorate should not be taken for granted

By Joseph Kayira

When the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was formed back in 2005 by late Bingu wa Mutharika, those in the United Democratic Front (UDF) then led by Bakili Muluzi thought Bingu was ungrateful. How on earth, could Bingu dump a party that had sponsored his presidency? The UDF swore to deal with him. They demanded that he should be impeached. The plan to impeach him went terribly wrong. Bingu hit back and managed to silence the UDF; he ruined it.

The UDF has never recovered from the shock it suffered from Bingu’s scathing retaliation. Worse still, the people the UDF had banked on for support as the party attacked Bingu, switched allegiance. They saw nothing wrong with Bingu forming the DPP. When Muluzi apologized to the nation for handpicking Bingu – a wrong choice – Malawians disagreed with him. Bingu was the kind of president they wanted. In the 2009 general elections, the electorate proved this point. Bingu won the presidential election by a landslide victory.

The UDF on the other hand did not have a presidential candidate in the 2009 elections. Efforts by Bakili for a comeback were thwarted by the courts: he had served as president of Malawi for two consecutive terms. The constitution did not allow him to bounce back. Bakili did the unthinkable at the time – at least in the eyes of many. He joined forces with the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) to face Bingu at the polls. One of the UDF gurus Brown Mpinganjira was Tembo’s runningmate. It was a wrong move. The electorate refused to be taken for granted. It would not join the vendetta between Bingu and Bakili.

Late Bingu wa Mutharika

So, such has been the behaviour of the electorate in Malawi. But Bingu too did not study the behaviour of the electorate. He became arrogant. In no time he was at loggerheads with the electorate, the opposition and the civil society. Fed up with his way of doing things, the civil society took him head on. They organized protests across the country premised on cost of living which they said was too high. Bingu ordered the police to shoot to kill. At one point, police gunned down 20 protesters. It was the beginning of the end for Bingu.

He challenged the civil society at the time – if you go to the streets we will meet in the streets. When the civil society went to the streets as a last resort to send the message to Bingu’s government, among other reasons, poor governance, he respond: “I don’t live in the streets.” He would not take advice or caution even from the donors and development partners. It was no surprise therefore when he sent packing a British envoy who in a memo described Bingu as ‘ever more autocratic and intolerant of criticism’.

The expulsion led to a litany of problems. The aid that Malawi enjoyed from the British was immediately cancelled. The Malawian High Commissioner in London was expelled. It was tit-for-tat, and in such situations, where the colonial master and the colonized are at loggerheads, the odds are always against the beggar. Malawians suffered. Bingu died in 2012 of cardiac arrest.

When Joyce Banda, who was still vice president of the state despite her expulsion from the DPP, took over the mantle of power, the expectation was that she would be different from her predecessor. She had the goodwill of the donors. Being Africa’s second female president after Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Mrs Banda enjoyed positive publicity around the globe.  But by 2014, that publicity turned into something that did not help her win the presidential election.

The revelation into the widespread theft of public money – popularly known as Cashgate Scandal – reduced Mrs Banda’s chances of winning the election. The DPP bounced back in power in 2014 with Bingu’s brother – Peter Mutharika – at the helm. Malawi Congress Party’s (MCP) candidate Dr Lazarus Chakwera came second. The electorate had rejected Mrs Banda and her Peoples Party (PP), who by virtue of incumbency should have used all that was at her disposal to campaign from Chitipa to Nsanje. Again, the voters were not to be taken for granted.

Now, when they say politicians are the same, it simply means just that. The more things change, the more they have remained the same. In 2014 the DPP promised to deal with corruption. But as at the polls in 2019, the opposition capitalized on the systemic corruption that was synonymous with the party in power – the DPP. Malawi is the 123 least corrupt nation out of 180 countries, according to the 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index reported by Transparency International.

Apparently, the electorate was incensed with the high level of corruption among politicians, businessmen and civil servants. Today, a number of DPP officials have been named or are being investigated in several cases of alleged fraud and corruption. Just as the case with Mrs Banda’s administration, the alleged corruption cost the DPP what could have been a second term of office for its presidential candidate. You do not take for granted the electorate in Malawi.

The Tonse Alliance, comprising nine parties, must tread carefully. Led by the MCP and UTM Party – the Tonse Alliance was voted into power largely because of its campaign promises that include the zeal to root out corruption and bring to book all plunderers. Vice President Saulos Chilima has been particularly vocal on this mission. The Anti-Corruption Bureau has echoed his calls to clampdown on those who stole from the public purse saying there would no mercy for thieves.

The Alliance also promised one million jobs to Malawians. It also promised a universal fertilizer subsidy. These promises must be seen to be implemented. Five years is not a long time to lie to Malawians. Soon the Tonse Alliance leaders will be campaigning for a second term of office. That will be somewhere in 2024. Are the leaders ready to rise above mere rhetoric before the next elections?

What the DPP witnessed at the polls last year and this year could also happen to the Tonse Alliance or any other political party. Malawians are angry and they want things to get done within the promised time frame – five years of the Tonse Alliance rule. Will the Tonse Alliance live to the expectations of the electorate? Will the one million jobs be created? Will the universal subsidy come into fruition? Again, you do not take the Malawian electorate for granted. There will be consequences at the next polls if those in power think they can toss around the electorate which has been perceived as docile over the years. Such line of thinking has proved to be a costly mistake to former ruling parties – the United Democratic Front, DPP and PP.