Who is in poll position in Malawi?

At first glance, Malawi’s 14 million people have a remarkable array of registered political parties to choose from – 48 to be exact. But with the clock ticking down towards next year’s presidential, parliamentary and local elections, the reality is far simpler since most of the country’s plethora of parties are inactive.

September 18th, 2013

At first glance, Malawi’s 14 million people have a remarkable array of registered political parties to choose from – 48 to be exact. But with the clock ticking down towards next year’s presidential, parliamentary and local elections, the reality is far simpler since most of the country’s plethora of parties are inactive.

And in presidential terms, there are really only four candidates who currently stand a chance of occupying State House after the polls – President Joyce Banda of the People’s Party (PP), Atupele Muluzi of the United Democratic Front (UDF), Peter Mutharika of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Reverend Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP).

So who is currently in poll position?

President Joyce Banda

Joyce Banda was catapulted onto the presidential stage when her increasingly authoritarian predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika, died in office. Banda was regarded by many as a possible saviour – someone who would be able to rescue Malawi from the economic woes and autocratic abuses authored by the DPP government. And she has certainly had an impact with her economic policies ensuring that the days of fuel and forex shortages are largely a thing of the past. She also said many of the right things about human rights, policing and the media. Her handling of a boundary dispute with Tanzania has also won her kudos.

However, she is also viewed as being indecisive and has battled to provide clear direction on some topics. A good example is the issue of homosexuality where government officials have made several conflicting statements – and she has been unable to effectively clarify the position.

And her government’s spending priorities have also come under fire, while her extensive travel and almost daily development rallies at a time when the country is short of funds have also raised eyebrows. Furthermore, the hefty packages being paid out to people due to the early termination of their contracts are viewed by many electors as a wasteful use of meagre resources.

In addition, despite initially calling on the state-run media to act as a public broadcaster rather than simply the government’s mouthpiece and despite regular complaints from opposition parties that the ruling party was monopolising state run TV and radio, she has done nothing to address the issues.

So while there is no doubt that Malawi is on a better path now than it was under Bingu, Banda’s presidential record is patchy – and while she will benefit from the trappings and perks of office, she is far from assured of another term in State House.

Lazarus Chakwera

The new kid on the block took to the political stage after many years of pastoral care – and his entry has certainly invigorated the race. Indeed, there has been an element of Chakweramania ever since he became the MCP’s standard-bearer. The wave of support for him is largely based on the fact that he is new to the political scene and boasts a clean slate and a clean reputation – and is a brand new face for the MCP. Indeed, this has even been enough to make many people forget all the bad policies and practices that came with the MCP when it was the country’s ruling party back in the dictatorial one-party days of President Hastings Banda.

However, the key question is whether he can sustain the current wave of Chakweramania. Firstly, he will need to tread carefully within the party – trying to bring the diehard dinosaurs of the good/bad old days along with him, while introducing more new faces that can lead the party forward and help to win over new voters. Secondly, he will have to craft a message and key policies that will resonate with the voters – something the MCP has failed to do since the advent of multiparty democracy in 1994.

And thirdly, linked to the fact that the MCP has now been out of office for almost 20 years, he will need to boost its resource mobilisation efforts. Without the benefit of being in government, it will be hard to build up a big enough war chest to re-establish itself as a party capable of competing effectively across the country and of winning State House.

Peter Mutharika

Given the depths the country sunk to under his brother Bingu, it is incredible that Peter Mutharika approaches the election as one of the strongest candidates.

However, he benefits from association with all the successes of the DPP’s seven years in power, including increased food security, infrastructural development and soaring GDP. The DPP also has substantial resources at its disposal – far more than the other opposition parties. And week in and week out, the party is on the road selling its agenda to the masses – shoring up its existing support base and pushing for converts. No other opposition party can boast of such regular engagement with the all-important voters.

But Mutharika will have to overcome some serious liabilities. Firstly, while he benefits from the DPP’s achievements, he is also associated with its failures, particularly economic woes and increasing repression during Bingu’s last two years as president. Indeed, as Bingu’s appointed successor and the DPP’s unofficial second-in-command, he shoulders a lot of the blame for the economic crisis and hardship suffered by so many Malawians before his brother’s death.

Furthermore, his performance in various ministries left a lot to be desired and will certainly haunt his attempts to take the top job. For example, when he was Minister of Justice, he oversaw the passage of a number of deeply anti-democratic – and deeply unpopular – laws. And as Minister of Education, he failed to resolve the University of Malawi saga when lecturers downed tools over infringements of academic freedom. The bitter wrangle, which pitted the government and the university’s council on one side against lecturers and students on the other, lasted for almost a year – but its affects are still being felt as the university now runs two streams of first years for different years.

Mutharika will have to work out a strategy that ensures he receives acclaim for the DPP’s successes, while distancing him from its economic failures – and his brother’s increasingly dictatorial last years in power. The party’s resources will help but he still has some major hurdles to overcome.

Atupele Muluzi

With 68 percent of Malawi’s population under 25 years old, Atupele Muluzi certainly has a big advantage. Viewed by many of the country’s youth as ‘their candidate’ since he is just 35 years old, Muluzi’s agenda for change also appeals to Malawi’s usually marginalised young men and women.

In addition, he has the full support of his father – former president Bakili Muluzi and the former ruling party, the UDF.

However, all these of these advantages come with disadvantages. It is notoriously difficult to get the youth to vote in large enough numbers to affect the outcome of elections, many people are wary of his father and are worried that he would try to rule Malawi through his son, and the UDF has fared very badly in the last two elections.

And lastly, Muluzi’s age might also count against him since many elder voters might see him as a ‘bebe’ – as too immature to rule the country. Rest assured, his competitors will bring this up time and time again.

But he cannot be counted out. If he can rally the youth to register and vote, re-energise his party and exploit his name-recognition effectively, he could become the second Muluzi to occupy State House.

Needless to say, much will change in the coming months as each candidate’s fortunes ebb and flow – but for the first time in a long time, it is far from clear who will win Malawi’s next election. And that can only be good for democracy and the country.

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