On 20th May 2014, Malawians turned out in thousands to cast their vote in a tripartite election to choose political leaders who would drive Malawi for the next five years.
There is consensus among Political commentators that the 2014 elections were the toughest in the history of democracy in Malawi drawing 12 contenders. Although the elections were relatively peaceful, there were by far not free and fair.
The Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) mismanaged the pre, during and post election processes. In many cases, ballot boxes were delivered late; some places did not have voters register while in some places voters were let to cast their votes in darkness. Voting in some stations in Blantyre and Lilongwe went on for three days. Interestingly, while some people were voting in these places, results from other polling centers were being announced by a handful of radio stations including the government owned Malawi Broadcasting Cooperation MBC. Further, the electronic result management system set up to facilitate the electronic transmission of votes, collapsed on the first day. MEC was forced to ferry ballot boxes to the tallying centers by road leaving room for speculation of manipulation and vote rigging. MEC also confirmed that results in some polling stations were more than the number of registered voters. The incumbent President Joyce Banda insinuated that and accused the Democratic Progress Party (DPP) of employing underhand methods to disadvantage other candidates. She sought to enter an injunction to restrain MEC from going on with vote counting and demanded for a physical audit of the counted votes. Peter Mutharika described this accusation as nonsense while MEC refuted claims that its result management system was interfered with or compromised by external forces. The injunction by Joyce Banda of the Peoples Party was rejected by the court arguing that such an action was premature.
Out of the twelve Presidential candidates who contested the May 20th elections, only two were female Presidential candidates including the incumbent Joyce Banda popularly known as JB and Helen Sigh. Other contenders included Professor Peter Mutharika of the Democratic Progress Party (DPP), former Malawi Pentecostal Assemblies of God National Bishop Pastor Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and Atupele Muluzi, the son of former President Bakili Muluzi (and the only youth in the race) contested on the United Democratic Front (UDF) ticket.
While final official election results are not expected to be out until May 29th 2014, preliminary indicators suggest that the race to Lilongwe is between Peter Mutharika of the DPP and Lazarus Chakwera of the MCP. Paradoxically, both the MCP and DPP had been in government before and their governance records are marred by episodes of prosperity and pain under repressive and authoritarian leaders. DPP was in power for 8 years while MCP was in power for 30 years. Joyce Banda, the incumbent came to power after the demise of Mbingu wa Mutharika in 2012. Joyce was never subjected to a Presidential by-election. She ascended to the Presidency through the constitution provision that provides for automatic ascendance of the Veep to the Presidency in the event of the demise of a sitting head of state. This election therefore is a litmus test to Joyce Banda. Malawians have voted, but it was a vote cast within the context of dilemmas, challenges and hope for new prospects. What were some of these dilemmas, challenges and prospects?
The DPP on whose ticket Peter Mutharika contested is a breakaway party from the United Democratic Front a party that ended the 30 years rule of Kamuzu Banda’s Malawi Congress Party (MCP). Peter is also the young brother to the late Professor Mbingu wa Mutharika, the predecessor to Joyce Banda. During Mbingu’s reign, Peter held various cabinet positions and was considered a close companion to Mbingu particularly in his second term. While Mbingu’s first term of office was impressively progressive as could be seen in the increase of agriculture productivity and infrastructure development including building of roads, schools and hospitals, he turned into an authoritarian and repressive ruler in his second term. Mbingu became sensitive to criticism that he unleashed the state machinery on citizens whose views he considered critical of his leadership style. He went on to call western donors stupid and severed diplomatic ties with Britain for criticizing his authoritarian rule. The result of Mbingu’s leadership style in the second term was the suspension of budget support to Malawi by western donors leading to serious shortage of forex, fuel, essential drugs in hospitals and institutionalized corruption and graft in institutions of governance. Malawians suffered. When Malawians complained about lack of fuel, the President dared them to go and lay on the highway and see if they would not be crushed by motor vehicles moving on the road. Indeed Mbingu’s second term was a dark period for Malawi. During this period, Peter Mutharika, the top contender in this race was very much part of the DPP. Would Peter depart from the legacy of his brother and mentor?
Chakwera is a new entrant into the political race. He stepped down from the pulpit where he was Presiding Bishop for the Pentecostal Assemblies of God Church to revive the fragile Malawi congress party, a contemporary of the United Independence Party (UNIP) of Zambia. The MCP almost went into a political comma after its ejection from power in 1994 following the fall of the Kamuzu dictatorial regime. The MCP is a party that fought for independence and set the tone of national development and national building. It is almost impossible today to point to any project in Malawi, which the MCP did not contribute to significantly. However, in the course of time, Kamuzu Banda became a brutal and notorious dictatorship that many Malawians who were about 15 years in 1994 recall the MCP time disdainfully and are apprehensive about its return. MCP’s new found fortunate seem to have be catalyzed by the youthful voters who did not experience the atrocities mated on Malawians by Kamuzu Banda the founder of the MCP and Chakwera’s long service in church cycles.
Joyce Banda’s Peoples Party had been in power for less than three years. Some Malawians feel that Joyce does not have the qualities of a national leader as she lacked tenacity and decisiveness on important national issues during her two year reign. Further, the so-called jet gate and cash get scandals, in which billions of money was not properly, accounted for earned Joyce a bad name of being corrupt in the eyes of the electorate. On the other side of the spectrum are those who argue that Joyce was just caught up in the web of corruption whose tentacles are rooted in the Mbingu era but only erupted under Joyce’s leadership. Gender activist argue that being female is what has eaten into JB’s political prospects.
Whatever the case may be, Malawi’s new leader would come from a party, which at one point served in government. It would be the party which has experience of having been in and outside government and therefore have a realistic view of both sides of the political divide. The new leader must avoid the temptation of being vindictive and vengeful. He must avoid failing pry to the corruption of power that intoxicates many African leaders because of excessive executive power. The biggest task facing the new leader is to unite Malawians across the three religions of north, south and central behind one national goal of lifting Malawi from the doldrums of poverty. Malawians are ready to bury the past and move on. Peter Mutharika has promised Malawians that he would end the era of political vengeance that has become a norm in Africa if voted into power. The writing is on the wall.
Nicholas Phiri is a social and political analyst and is currently pursuing Postgraduate Studies in peace and conflict studies at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Management Studies- Copperbelt University. For feedback and comments email HYPERLINK “mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org”email@example.com