The major political players of the upcoming May 2019 General Election — Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Malawi Congress Party (MCP), People’s Party (PP), United Democratic Front (UDF) and United Transformation Movement (UTM) — all submitted their party nomination papers through their presidential candidates to the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) during the week of the 3rd of February 2019. During the preceeding months, the presidential nominees of these parties including the Head of State who is also the president of the party in government (DPP) had held off announcing their running mates for fear of exacerbating the factions within their respective parties. Apart from the MCP’s nominee, whose running mate seemed apparent by around October-November 2018 due to a colossal effort on his part to market the party in the Southern Region of Malawi where it was weakest, thereby enhancing his own stature within the party, all the other candidates remained as silent as a graveyard until the actual day when they handed their party nomination papers to the Electoral Commission. So extreme was this silence that, for example, a close associate of the current President of Malawi was heard by multiple people at a funeral in Blantyre on 7th February saying he was expecting the President to select as running mate Atupele Muluzi (leader of UDF who is serving as Health Minister in the DPP-led government). But on the very next day, the President would announce another little-known cabinet minister, Everton Chimulirenji, as he was submitting his nomination papers — to the palpable astonishment of most members of his cabinet who were there with him including the thousands of supporters who attended the function.
Similarly, Saulos Chilima, the current Vice President of Malawi who defected from the ruling party to form the UTM which he now leads; Joyce Banda, the former President of Malawi and leader of PP; Atupele Muluzi, son of former President Bakili Muluzi, current Minister of Health and leader of UDF; all announced their running mates during their own submissions at different points during the same week.
The two major factors which seem to have informed the selection decisions of running mates, except for the UTM and MCP cases, are:
(a) a running mate whose political stature is small in comparison to the presidential candidate so as to avoid further aggravating the politically ambitious factions within the respective parties who might view the selected running mate as an internal threat; and,
(b) a running mate who puts a region of the country in which the respective party or presidential candidate is weak into electoral play.
UTM and MCP are different for a similar inverted logic: Their running mates (future vice presidents) are political forces in their own rights — Sidik Mia of MCP is a long time Southern Region political heavyweight who, as mentioned above, has made the political capital he brings indispensable to MCP, whereas Michael Usi of UTM has long been in the public domain as a political satirist before he became part of the core group which jumpstarted the groundswell for Saulos Chilima during his defection from the governing party. The fact that both of them come from different regions to their party presidents is an added advantage.
In UDF, Frank Mwenifumbo of the Alliance for Democracy (Aford) party, who maintains his allegiance to the president of that party, adroitly accepted to run with Atupele Muluzi, producing a kind of political symbiosis in which two, largely eviscerated legacy political organizations (both of whom made their names during the political movements to end single-party rule culminating in the multiparty plebiscite of June 1993), might improve their visibility especially in Parliament so as to make more likely their inclusion as cabinet appointees in the government to be formed by the victor party of the upcoming General Election. In fact, Atupele Muluzi has been able to keep his job as Minister of Health in spite of announcing that he would be running in the General Election against his appointing authority, the President himself.
As I mentioned in a previous article, the President of Malawi — Peter Mutharika — has very limited room to maneuver politically largely due to the implosion of his authority within DPP. As was the case during his infamous State of the Nation Address (SoNA) when he was interrupted by functionaries of the youth wing of his own party, in recent weeks, he has been unable to stop repeated instances of politically motivated violence perpetrated by the same youth wing functionaries in spite of it eroding his popularity and undermining his authority. In the district of Mangochi, in the South-Eastern part of the country, a woman wearing the political regalia of UTM was assaulted when the vehicle she was riding in was stopped by DPP youth wing members (called the Youth Cadets), who then proceeded to strip her right along the main highway to the Mangochi town center. President Mutharika — caught between the faction of old friends and colleagues from his previous life as a scholar with whom he was temporarily detained during the Joyce Banda Presidency, and whom he trusts and prefers, and the faction which orchestrated the fall-out between him and his Vice President (Chilima), and whose decadent pursuit of their political ambitions he has become weary of — remained mum, taking several days before issuing a statement condemning the violence. His failure to act on a cultural taboo matter — the undressing of a woman— for fear of further alienating the latter wing of the party led to a rapid mobilization of women political leaders and activists from all political backgrounds (including the President’s own party) who threatened a women’s march if such violence was not dealt with decisively by the President and his government. (This was happening just after the December 2018 16 days of activism: a period spent sensitizing the general public against Violence Against Women (VAW).
Moreover, the President himself is a HeForShe Champion and ambassador — a role which mandates him to take clear stances against the perpetuation of VAW and other discriminatory practices and policies against women and girls in Malawi and abroad. Of course, the opposition parties turned his indecisiveness into an opportunity to harangue and slam him and the DPP-led government in public. (I say this because none of the political parties contesting for the presidency have taken seriously the scourge of — sexual, psychological, socio-cultural, legal and pedophilial— Violence Against Women and Girls in Malawi beyond the odd political podium platitude here and there.)
Prior to the week of the 3rd of February (the nomination submission week), a short-lived alliance was announced among UTM, PP, Tikonze Party and Aford. It did not last a week: PP withdrew citing violations of the agreement by UTM’s Chilima (now it is widely accepted that former President Joyce Banda had intended for the alliance to get her son, Roy Kachale, to run as Chilima’s Vice President at the election — a proposal Chilima and his top brass refused); Tikonze party too soon withdrew citing other violations by UTM of their own; and then finally Aford (these last two’s presidential candidates were also vying for the running mate position which now, in hindsight, was already on reserve for Michael Usi who was later announced by Chilima at his party’s nomination submission the following week).
While the anti-DPP public longs for a grand alliance among the opposition parties, most especially between the MCP and UTM which I concede would be virtually unassailable if achieved, the presidential system which Malawi operates under means that the only constitutionally guaranteed positions which are immune to the political impulses of other political and legal actors are those of the President’s and the Vice-President’s offices. The tumultuous relationships between Presidents and their Vices seen in the post single-partyera have provided ample lessons: Despite dogged attempts by incumbents to get rid of their Vice Presidents, the pinnacle of which were attempted by late President Bingu wa Mutharika against his Vice, Cassim Chilumpha (now leader of Tikonze Party) over trumped up allegations that Chilumpha had constructively resigned as Vice President due to his failure to attend cabinet meetings, those attempts proved politically toxic and legally futile. No constitutional basis was ever found by the Courts to uphold the position taken by late Mutharika and his Cabinet. Later, Bingu wa Mutharika would again fall out with Vice President Joyce Banda who started her own party, the PP, while still in government. Again, in spite of the parallel political structures created by the Vice President, no constitutional basis for her removal was found by the Courts.
The 1st of such overt tensions in the multiparty era was between President Bakili Muluzi and Vice President Justin Malewezi. The political fracas between them almost led to the total destruction of the UDF party after Bakili Muluzi imposed party outsider Bingu wa Mutharika as President of the UDF over Mr. Malewezi out of fear that once President, Muluzi would not have been able to control Malewezi from his retirement home in Limbe, Blantyre. But once Bingu wa Mutharika had gotten into government on the ticket of Muluzi’s UDF, he defected from that party to form his own, DPP, creating a constitutional crisis which was never resolved owing to High Court Injunctions and the torrential support he enjoyed with the public at the time, which saved him and his minority unelected party of defectors from impeachment and expulsion from parliament, respectively.
These scenarios in which the different machinations of powerful and determined incumbents failed to dislodge a Vice President have shown party leaderships that an electoral alliance that has staying power in a presidential system like Malawi’s, in which parliament largely plays an attenuated oversight role, is one which involves occupying the lower office within the Presidency. Additionally, the Constitution of the Republic espouses the notion of the President and Vice President being “Concurrently Elected”. Such that the political legitimacy of the Presidency itself is deemed jointly sustained on optional or discretionary matters aside of the willful resignation of the lower office (to which a new Vice can be appointed by the President), and barring substantive ones such as the incapacitation and death of, or allegations of certain impeachable abuses against, one office bearer or the other. In this way, even in the heat of hostilities, both the President and the Vice actively work to sustain the Presidency even as they seek to undermine each other as politicians through administrative tactics, since the structure protects and preserves them both and their wider parties.
Furthermore, the ascension of Joyce Banda to President after President Bingu wa Mutharika died in office, amidst attempts by his cabinet to impede her, has also made the Vice Presidency in an electoral alliance a potential backdoor to the President’s office in the event of death or incapacitation, even though the constitution requires that elections be held within a specified period if the next ones are a certain amount of time into the future from the date of the death. (Here too, the principle of “Concurrent Election” is apparent albeit with more deference to the higher office.)
Moreover, the Judiciary has rather fiercely defended this constitutional model of the Malawian Presidency and its relevant Act, issuing orders that have reversed administrative positions taken by Presidents in their quest to politically squeeze an insubordinate Vice President into submission. Most commonly, Presidents have sought to dismantle the security details of their Vice Presidents to severely limit their political activities by grounding them— but courts have consistently overturned such measures when relief has been sought by the affected Vices. Most recently, Police Headquarters — on instructions from State House — ordered that a certain number of police personnel on the Vice President’s (Saulos Chilima’s) security detail be re-stationed or transferred else where in the police service. The legal representation of the Vice President went to the High Court to challenge the transfers, all of which were halted, leaving all the security personnel intact against the President and Cabinet’s wishes. There is thus an incentive structure which undermines the possibility of electoral alliances at lower levels of cooperation than the Presidential and Vice-Presidential levels. At the Parliamentary level, for example, parties find it difficult to establish pre-election day alliances because all their potential Members of Parliament (MPs) are up for [re-]election, so that it becomes difficult to convince members running on a party ticket to give way to an opponent in order to honor an alliance. Normally when this is attempted, the MPs called upon to sacrifice their bids defect to run as Independents, often taking their supporters with them thereby undercutting the said alliance agreed by the respective parties at the National Executive Committee (NEC) Levels while also weakening the general performance of the parties themselves in the presidential race when the same voters of the defecting MP are expected to vote for the party which ousted their preferred candidate for parliament. Thus, alliances are confined to the Presidency’s two constitutionally protected offices prior to voting day, or in Ad Hoc formations in parliament after election day when the actual [re-]elected MPs have been sworn in so that the composition of the Parliamentary chamber is known.
Going forward, President Mutharika is not out of the woods yet — being that this is still his election to lose. The factions, temporarily mollified by the chosen running mate, will certainly re-strategize their next moves. Should the diverse forces within the party come to a head — as some unconfirmed murmurings on Social Media and WhatsApp, and among connected persons seem to suggest — the in-fighting and attempts at sabotage to gain proximity to the two offices in the presidency might intensify to the point of consuming the leadership as the election draws closer. Already, confidential audio clips involving highly placed people in government have leaked repeatedly into the public domain, going viral on Social Media and attracting fervent oppositional punditry on radio and television programmes. The stakes in this election are such that the opponents of the President both within and outside his party, extending into the local media, seem willing to use each other to undermine his authority and to weaken the bonds between him and those closest to him as they maneuver to position themselves closer to that very office. The opposition parties however need not worry about this dynamic unfolding to remotely the same extent within their rank and file.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect iAffairs’ editorial stance.
Mphatso Moses Kaufulu is a political and cultural sociologist from Malawi concerned with questions about social epistemology in Southern Africa. He is a PhD student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. He is interested in the idea of culture as “play”, culture as history, and culture as power.
Image courtesy of Christoph Löffler