The electoral fever has unmistakably set on, just about a year to general and presidential elections. But what we are now seeing, we have seen before. It is a replay of the same script: violence and intimidation of opposition parties by the ruling party, intimidation by incumbents of potential contestants within both ruling and opposition parties, and shady deals involving illicit money and ethnicity.
These are the evils that clog the wheels of democracy in the country. At the party level, democracy remains to be fully institutionalised. This is partly due to the lack of proper party structures at the grassroots which in turn accounts for the strong hold party leaders have on their political parties and their lack of accountability to party members.
For the party in power, the hold of the party leader on his or her party is strengthened by his or her access to State resources which are used to feed patronage networks. No other person in the party can challenge such a leader simply because the levers over state resources are held by the latter. This situation is sustained by a political culture that has normalised abuse of State resources for political reasons—bribing constituents, chiefs and electoral officials, and sponsoring political campaigns.
For opposition parties, the party leader sustains his or her authority either by his or her share of access to State resources, mainly through parliament, or personal wealth or both. In some cases, the association of a party to founding families adds another layer of authority in addition to these.
We are yet to reach a stage where ability, moral virtue and standing, competence and performance are the overriding factors of success within political ranks and on the national stage. In addition to the evils I have mentioned above, the yoke of ethnicity continues to shape the course of political alliances, leadership and national governance.
However, it would be fair to argue that it is the criminalisation of democracy and its institutions that is proving to be the most telling impediment to democratisation in Malawi. By this, I mean the use of political parties as an instrument of committing financial crimes against the State, and then using the public resources converted from the coffers to bribe the electorate, electoral officials and those charged with deciding on the legality electoral results. Criminalisation of democracy also refers to the use of violence as a tool of electioneering. Such violence can be physical, threatened or actual; Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) cadets often rely on both. It could be psychological or rely on abuse of disciplinary processes as the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) has tended to do.
The result is a corrosive atmosphere where intra-party democracy is not possible and, where there are party electoral conferences, such political events end up being a sham. The forgery that is committed at party levels manifests itself in full-scale political criminality on the national stage where state resources are siphoned out to sustain itself.
This cycle of criminality has to be broken. The electorate has tried to do so in part through electing independent member of Parliament (MPs), but this has generally not solved the problem of lack of intra-party democracy and illicit political deals. The electorate has also generally voted MPs out after one or two electoral terms, but this hasn’t gotten rid of bad apples in politics.
It is the ability of the people to hold the highest office to account that will ensure that the criminalisation of politics in Malawi is eliminated once and for all. There are at least three paths to this. The first is the obvious one—to vote an underperforming president out. This requires rejecting intimidation, bribes and ethnicisation of elections in favour of voting with one’s conscious. It’s the hardest course the country as a whole needs to take which promises rich rewards.
The second path is for members of political parties to demand accountability and democracy within their own parties. This is unlikely to happen unless political parties have proper and functioning party structures with clear and workable legitimation processes and procedures.
The third path is to take political crimes as ordinary criminality. This means that crime fighting agencies and authorities must vigorously investigate and punish it. Here we have a poor record of successfully prosecuted past presidents for the crimes they are alleged to have committed while in power. Elsewhere, in South Korea and Brazil for example, this is happening and has significant implications for democracy. We also have a poor record of investigating and prosecuting political violence of the kind DPP cadres are alleged to have committed in Mulanje last week.
The criminal culture that currently prevails in political circles in the country not only scuttles the government’s development agenda and public service delivery, it also prevents competent and skilled Malawians from entering politics for fear of being corrupted. If the best among us are unable to lead, we will be stuck with the cycle of poor leadership.
*Danwood Chirwa is Professor of Law, University of Cape Town, South Africa