Where does Malawi go from here?

Quick reflections on the 2014 elections and what they mean for the future of democracy in Malawi 

June 6th, 2014

Quick reflections on the 2014 elections and what they mean for the future of democracy in Malawi 

Introduction

To be sure, elections do not equate to democracy but they are an essential step in the democratisation process and an important element in the full enjoyment of a wide range of human rights. As a matter of fact, elections an integral part of human rights for two reasons. First because they give voice to the political will of the people. Second, because to be truly free and fair they must be conducted in an atmosphere which is respectful of human rights. The right to take part in government directly or through freely chosen representatives is also enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 21.1) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (article 25). The holding of the May 2014 elections can therefore be considered to have been yet another milestone towards democratic consolidation. As a fundamental process towards democratic consolidation, the May 20 elections merit a critical reflection if lessons are to be drawn for the sake of deepening Malawi’s democracy.  This article is a contribution in this regard.

Another critical juncture that came to pass

The May 2014 elections were not ordinary. It was yet another “critical juncture” in Malawi’s history. These elections provided Malawi as a nation with a unique opportunity not only to reflect on the past but also to shape the future. A number of factors characterised this critical juncture. First, they coincided with Malawi’s 50 years of independence. This is no mean achievement. As a nation-state, Malawi had come of age. Second, 2014 marked 20 years since the re-introduction of multiparty elections in 1993. Surely, having gone through four general elections (1994, 1999, 2004 and 2009), one referendum in 1993 and local government elections in 2000, there were simply too many lessons that should have made the 2014 elections better than any other past elections. Third was the generation factor that was at the centre of these elections. A significant proportion of those taking part in the May 2014 elections were the youth that can best be described as not only the “dot.com/google generation” but also the generation that has grown up in this democratic dispensation. This young generation calls for a different approach to politics. A fourth factor was the fact that these were elections which by far were less predictable.

The most competitive elections ever

The four main candidates, Joyce Banda of People’s Party (PP), Dr. Lazarus Chakwera of Malawi Congress Party (MCP), Atupele Muluzi of United Democratic Front (UDF) and Prof. Peter wa Mutharika of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)  had every reason to believe that they had all that it takes to claim victory. Joyce Banda enjoyed the advantages of incumbency. Those who are familiar with African politics would agree with me that on this account alone, President Banda had the kind of political asset if not political arsenal that gave her a relative competitive edge over the rest of the other candidates. To her credit, the country had arguably also witnessed some positive developments in macro-economics. However, it was under her watch that the infamous “cash-gate saga” came to pass and illustrated how deep and systemic corruption and fraud had become. 

Dr. Lazarus Chakwera on the other part had just rejuvenated and rebranded the MCP through a rare intra-party democratic process. With Chakwera and the new MCP leadership, a new chapter for MCP had started. His being a novice in Malawi’s politics quickly became his major strength as he was able to comfortably distance himself from the MCP’s dark past and also the systemic fraud and corruption that had dented every administration since the re-introduction of multiparty democracy in 1993. The fact that MCP had “overstayed” in opposition further added moral and political pressure. For the “new MCP” the 2014 elections was their long-awaited turn to get back what really matters for any party: to be in power.

For Peter wa Mutharika, the opportunities to exploit were there too. It was only two years ago that DPP was in power. Comparatively, they still could count on some of the achievements of the first five years (2004-2009) of his brother, Bingu wa Mutharika. Besides, as a party, although they suffered some defections following Bingu’s death, they still had some semblance of structures on the ground that the PP probably never had. There was also a sympathy vote that DPP could count on. Here is a party that lost power only through a very unfortunate ‘natural disaster’. Of course, the treason charges levelled against Peter and the other senior DPP leaders also turned into a political capital as prosecution presented an image of persecution. The stakes for the DPP were equally high and these (stakes) provided the much needed impetus and drive to victory at all cost. For Peter, these elections were a “must pass” litmus test if he were to prove his sceptics wrong: that he was in politics NOT by chance because of his late brother. DPP was also very bitter with the hard reality that they were confronting these elections as an opposition party and yet they never had lost any elections.

Atupele Muluzi must have also been confident, and rightly so, that this was the year not to be missed. Malawi is a very youthful nation and he presented himself as the hope for such a nation. As a matter of fact, one may even argue that it was the “Atupele factor” that saw parties like PP and DPP going for very youthful running mates as they parties realised quickly that the generational factor was a force to reckon with and had positively responded to this factor.

The ethnic and/or regional dynamics and the calculative risk-taking in the choice of running mates

The confidence levels among the top four candidates must have also been further solidified by the great care, and calculative risks that were taken in the choice of their running mates. It was apparent that in addition to the generational factor already alluded to above, the ethnic/regional dynamics were taken into account, and for good reasons. Thus, Joyce Banda of PP found it necessary to break ranks with her former long time ally and Vice President Khumbo Kachali in favour of a very youthful Sosten Gwengwe from the central region. The UDF leader, Atupele Muluzi, compensated compensating his youthfulness with the choice of Dr. Godfrey Chapola, also from the centre. Professor Peter wa Mutharika was equally calculative by opting for the “young man” Saulos Chilima also from the Centre. As a matter of fact, just like the southern region was oversubscribed with three top presidential candidates, so did the central region which had the highest per capita of running mates respectively. This is probably what may have prompted Dr. Lazarus Chakwera of MCP to cast his net northward and bring on board Richard Msowoya. With all these considerations at play, the ground was set for what would become Malawi’s high stake and very competitive elections in the history of country.

But what lessons can be drawn from these elections?

Admittedly, these elections put Malawi’s democracy on trial. There are simply too many things that either happened or did not happen that merit a proper reflection if lessons are to be drawn for the future. It is not possible for us to do such an in-depth and comprehensive assessment. Instead, it may be found prudent and pragmatic to identify key issues that can serve as an agenda for such an assessment when the dust has settled.

The tendency of treating elections as an event

As pointed out at the outset, for Malawi, these were not the first elections to be held. Besides, Malawi is probably one of the very few countries where general elections are very predictable for the date is set in the country’s Constitution. Against this backdrop, one would have expected that the 2014 elections would have been a great improvement in terms of the way they were going to be organised and managed. The challenges that surfaced tell different story. They demonstrate not only the alleged rigging attempts by some parties but also the ill-preparedness and some degree of incompetence of some of the important players such as the electoral management body, political parties, election monitors and elections observers. How then can this paradox be understood?

Inability to make use of experiences and lessons from the past elections

One plausible explanation here is the fact that until now, elections in Malawi are considered as if they were a one off event that happens every five years. This problem cuts across all the relevant stakeholders and it is manifested in various ways. Firstly, it would appear that every time Malawi holds elections, there are no deliberate efforts to systematically look into the past and draw lessons that could feed into the programming and implementation of present and future elections. As soon as elections are over and results are announced, the various stakeholders get back to their ‘usual businesses’. Valuable reports of election observers and monitors as well as reports of post elections conferences (if and when they are held) easily and quickly gather dust as no one takes the effort to initiate debate on them. As such, a systematic learning curve is not developed since every election is approached almost from the scratch and as a standalone activity. Unsurprisingly, some of the problems such as the unreliable voters’ roll, logistical nightmares, among others, have become chronic. Of course, the 2014 elections were preceded by a five year (2013-2017) strategic planning process by the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC). However, it is also important to note that it was only in mid 2012 that the Commission that oversaw the 2014 elections was constituted. Even worse, the Chairperson only came on board in the last quarter of that year (2012). One can very well imagine that a lot of valuable time was thereafter spent by the Commission on getting to know the trade leaving very little time to apply the knowledge on the urgent and monumental task at hand.

The crisis management culture

Partly also because elections are considered as an event, too many important activities are hurriedly done within a short space of time thereby creating (unnecessarily) a crisis situation. It baffles many observers and analysts for instance to note that at time that work has to be done, stakeholders are locked up in a series of trainings and workshops that could have as well been done two years before the onset of the elections phase. In the end, everything becomes urgent and there is very room under such circumstances to do a thorough and sober planning. Of course, those who support elections, government and donors alike, are also to blame here since they have equally fallen into trap of treating elections as an event. They tend to appreciate the need to provide support for elections related activities only during the actual election period. This is simply unproductive.

The long-overdue electoral reforms

The results of the 2014 elections and the challenges that surfaced further confirmed that electoral reforms in Malawi are long overdue. In any case, the extent to which the management and administration of elections may abide by and reflect democratic norms and principles and, therefore, contribute to the democratic consolidation in any country is, among other key factors, determined by the legal framework within which those elections are held. 

To recount or not to recount and the quest to protect credibility of elections

The controversies and the drama surrounding the presidential results are illustrative here. The fact that MEC failed to do a recount of the disputed presidential results on the technical/legal grounds that it was constrained by law clearly demonstrates that there is need for such a law to be reconsidered. Otherwise, the will of people gets compromised or misrepresented in the name of abiding by such laws. These electoral laws still contain a number of gaps and inconsistencies that need to be addressed. What then is democracy if the will of the people is circumvented or trampled upon? Without addressing these loopholes, the citizenry may be disillusioned. This may lead to loss of confidence not only in elections but in democracy as a whole.

The electoral system and misrepresentation of the will of the people

The centrality of elections to democracy is closely associated with the importance of electoral systems that are chosen. The reason is obvious. Electoral systems, in their limited definition, determine the rules according to which the voters may express their political preferences and according to which it is possible to convert votes into parliamentary seats or government posts. Simply put, it is electoral systems that determine the voter-representative relationship. Consequentially, whether those elected can identify with and feel directly accountable to their electorate is a question that is partly addressed by the type of electoral system in use. 

The winner-take-all (simple majority) system that Malawi uses has clearly demonstrated its inadequacies. To begin with, it has further heightened elections stakes as those who win get everything and those who lose have nothing to count on. Such a zero-sum game does not cultivate politics of accommodation. Secondly, under this system, there is no guarantee that a party that wins more seats in parliament would form government. As matter of fact, the experiences in Malawi show the opposite. Furthermore, except in few instances, those who win the presidency have often done so with far much less than 50% of the votes cast. In the 2014 elections, Peter wa Mutharika has won with only 36.4%. Put it differently, as many as 63.6% of the electorate did not vote for him. A lot will now depend on how the President elect will reach out to this majority of the voters

Conclusion

These elections, controversial and competitive as they were, have offered the sense of urgency with regard to the much needed critical reflection on the future of Malawi’s democracy. The moment is opportune as it coincides with the celebration of 50 years of independence and 20 years of democracy. The future now rests not so much on how the past has been analysed, understood or blamed. Rather, it depends on what the relevant stakeholders will do in practice to ensure that past mistakes are not to be repeated and democracy is given a renewed meaning and relevance. Resuscitating the stalled (2006/2007) constitutional review process is pertinent and a good starting point.

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