Malawi votes next Tuesday, on the 21st of May 2019 for a president as well as local government and parliamentary representatives. The emergent themes so far as we head into Tuesday for the casting of ballots are as below. A more in-depth analysis will follow after the elections, when the victors have been declared.
1. There has been much concern about what role politically motivated violence might play in the lead up to election day: while political tensions and rivalries have been high, actual physical violence (that is, person to person, group to group, politically orchestrated confrontations) has largely been absent during the weeks and months leading up to voting day up until very recently when MCP and DPP supporters clashed in Nsanje district in the Southern region. Save for a few cases, most of which occurred outside the official campaign period which started on Apirl 20th 2019, the most prevalent form of violence, as it has been so classified in Malawian political discourse, has taken the form of acts of vandalism against campaign advertisements such as billboards and party materials of rival parties put up in public spaces. The ruling party supporters have been accused of perpetrating such acts with the opposition’s supporters largely acting in retaliation.
2. The introduction into electoral politics of the newly formed United Transformation Movement (UTM) started by Vice President Saulos Chilima who fell out with President Peter Mutharika and his party, the alliance among Lazarus Chakwera’s Malawi Congress Party (MCP), former President Joyce Banda’s People’s Party (PP) and former Vice President Khumbo Kachali’s Freedom Party (FP), could help destabilise certain remnant patterns of regional voting along with a significant acknowledgement of women as a potential mega trans-regional voting bloc as seen in the political rhetoric of both the MCP and the UTM at their campaign rallies and events. The youth as well, especially in the urban areas will be critical especially to the UTM largely due to Chilima’s rather adroit messaging targeting that populations’ largest employer: the massive informal sector in Malawi.
3. The Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC), in my opinion, has persisted in its institutional habit of playing the underdeveloped role of facilitator of elections, refusing to view ensuing circumstances as opportunities to grow and assert itself as an actual regulator of the elections. It has skillfully deflected responsibility to the offices of the Registrar General for the enforcement of the Political Parties Act just passed last year in 2018, the District Commissioners Offices, or the Multiparty Liaison Committees at the District levels. Additionally, MEC’s inability to form constructive partnerships with Civil Society Organizations in the area of election monitoring and electoral governance is in keeping with the general attitude of governance institutions in Malawi which continue to view public involvement in the provision of services and the fulfilment of mandates as problematic. That being so, MEC has done well in managing public perceptions especially when the Malawi government itself – led by current President Mutharika – alleged that the opposition was instigating efforts to rig the elections: these allegations went so far as the naming of countries such as Greece, India, Russia, Nigeria and Israel, which compelled the department of immigration to raise the threat levels of all nationals from those countries at Malawi’s ports of entry. Fierce expostulations by CSOs, political parties, telecommunications providers and some MEC commissioners, amidst potential for diplomatic problems for the Malawi government especially from India, Nigeria and Russia, seem to have made the President walk back on those claims.
4. Due to the inability of the police services to provide ample security for all the election related activities especially on polling day, the departments of immigration and the Malawi Defense Force (MDF) have been grafted in to bolster inadequate police capacity, especially security personnel and to some extent logistics. Also, there has been some scaling up in recruitment in the police and immigration departments in order to meet the security demands of the election. Rumors have thus been rife that such recruitment might be compromised by operatives in the Malawi government favoring the ruling party – additionally, that police and immigration uniforms might find themselves in the hands of party functionaries of the ruling party who might use the access afforded them by such official attire to undermine the election in hotly contested areas especially through the disruption of electoral processes.
5. Parties have sharpened their ideological differences. Rampant corruption and profligacy in the government incentivized political parties in the opposition to pile-on against government and the ruling party to the point where such criticisms were no longer electorally viable. As such, the UTM and the MCP had to anchor their respective criticisms of the government in a message that differentiated them from each other. In this process, very clear demarcations have formed such that Tuesday’s vote will not merely be about the removal of a government by those who would like to see a change in leadership but also a vote for very distinct visions among the alternatives provided by the opposition. The tendency to dismiss out-of-hand Malawian political parties as non-ideological formations must now be met with a more nuanced accounting of political party messaging during the campaign period of 2019 vis-a-vis political party activities in the National Assembly and in government.
6. The intensely competitive southern region which is the home base of four big parties (DPP, UTM, UDF and PP) coupled with comparatively lower voter registration levels to especially the central region means that the presidential struggle for election will be settled in the central and then northern regions. Thus far the newly formed UTM has considerable support in parts of the “Tumbuka speaking North” and in many of the urban centers and peri-urban areas in the rest of the country (especially the informal sector). The MCP seems to have retained its central region stronghold while making inroads in other regions as well, especially rural Nsanje in the South, and Karonga and Chitipa in the northern-most districts of Malawi. Absent incumbency advantages like the ones enjoyed by the ruling DPP which has benefited from government resources to subvent its campaign, the UTM and the MCP have run rather stellar campaigns. MCP run a rather decentralized campaign granting party officials considerable leeway to team up with alliance partners to meet regional and district expectations; UTM displayed an incredible versatility in the use of rhetoric tailored to regions and districts, and marketing strategies intended to create news and thus keeping the party firmly thrusted in the public conversation.
7. The shadow of the beleaguered 2014 election which a plurality of Malawians saw as the most fraudulent election in Malawi’s history might serve as a primer for a post-electoral impasse especially if the incumbent is declared winner. While the UTM and MCP have attacked each other with increasing frequency and ferocity as election day has approached, their differences are ephemeral in comparison to the differences they both have with the DPP. It would not be unreasonable to expect them to band together with their respective political bases to pressure the DPP should a post-electoral impasse ensue. Also, in parliament, I would not be surprised to see them coordinating their efforts in the event that they both ended up in opposition. (The President and the ruling party’s refusal to sign the Peace Declaration organized by the very influential Public Affairs Committee — PAC, is a cause for concern especially in the event of an impasse. All other presidential contenders attended the function and signed accompanied by the highest representatives of their religious organizations.)
8. There have been significant references to the colonial era in this election’s campaign period such that de-colonization messages were frequently pronounced especially at UTM rallies (which included implied critiques of the MCP’s failure to articulate a fully fledged postcolonial vision after independence was achieved in the 1960s). On the MCP’s part, Malawi’s developmental atrophy ensued when large state-owned businesses were sold off after the referendum and elections of 1993 and 1994 respectively under the much resented World Bank and IMF championed Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), leaving the people of Malawi at the mercy of predatory multinational firms, and the Malawi government without any levers for steering the economy in favor of nationals. Both parties appear to have endorsed variations of indigenization policies especially in Malawi’s new industries like mining, in tourism, in agriculture and other critical sectors (health, public infrastructure and education). Also national security seems to have gotten a lot of interest, interwoven with calls to enhance the security and safety of Persons with Albinism (PwA) whose abductions and murders over the past several months have become central to electioneering politics among the opposition parties owing to the tremendous efforts of advocacy and activism on the part of the Association of Persons with Albinism in Malawi(APAM) and their CSO allies.
9. In closing: its a three-horse race made up of the DPP, MCP and UTM. Incumbency advantage still matters but this election will probably go all the way down to the wire.
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 Wikipedia
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect iAffairs’ editorial stance.