The internal squabbles currently taking place in the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) are at once an indication that the party has not yet shed its old spots and a reflection of gross misunderstanding of its responsibility to the people of Malawi.
It was widely expected when the new leadership took over that it would rebuild and transform the party into an effective national and inclusive, internally democratic, party that could provide a realistic chance of graduating from the status of an opposition party to the status of a ruling party. To achieve this, the party had to prove that it is more tolerant than it was, that it can allow internal contestation of ideas including opposing views, that its leadership was not authoritarian, and that it can marshal support beyond its traditional base, the Central Region.
The manner in which the party has dealt with dissenting views from its senior leaders in the last two years suggests that none of these things have happened.
This is disappointing particularly because the party has a responsibility to the nation, arising from its special position as the oldest political party in the country and the rich heritage it has received, to organise itself in a manner that presents a real alternative to the current political status quo. By succumbing to petty infighting, the party has singularly abdicated that responsibility.
The party’s own recent history shows that huge internal fallouts of the kind that are taking place now never help any faction, nor the country. In a sense, this is a replay of the Tembo/Chakwamba duel, which was purely personal, myopic and narrow, and neither of the two gentlemen became State president.
Chakwamba managed to form the so-called Mgwirizano Coalition, but it fell narrowly short of beating Muluzi’s United Democratic Front (UDF), precisely because what he gained in the coalition was undercut by the loss of Tembo’s supporters. On the other hand, Tembo unsuccessfully sought to rely on his traditional base, which was not enough.
Similar results accompanied the Alliance for Democracy, which started as a broad-based church of high profile politicians, but as Chihana raised himself above everybody else and claimed the party as his family property, he forced many senior members of the party out, correspondingly reducing the influence of the party in the country. He never became State president, and his party is all but a relic.
The UDF also significantly lost its political influence when Muluzi, obsessed with power, sought to run for the third term, got rid of senior and loyal members of the party, the likes of Aleke Banda and Brown Mpinganjira. The party has since shrunk to a junior partner in tribal ruling pact with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
We do not know what kind of disagreements have caused the rift that we are seeing in the MCP. However, all indications in the media suggest that they pertain to the absence of real contestation of ideas and positions within the party, a problem that is not particularly unique to this party but is endemic to all Malawian parties. Intra-party democracy is pivotal to the growth of our political parties and ultimately to the consolidation of our democracy. Without cultivating internal party democracy, we will continue to struggle to build democratic institutions at the State level.
At the very least, one expects that an old party like the MCP will have established mechanisms of dealing with discipline and disputes among its members. Some of these mechanisms could be conciliatory and mediatory, others could be punitive. Whatever mechanism is used, procedural fairness has to be the underlying principle. The suspensions and dismissals the party has made thus far seem to be outright arbitrary and unfair, risking protracted legal proceedings in the courts, distracting the party from concentrating on preparing for next year’s elections.
Litigation is expensive and stressful. It will not only divert much of the resources and time of the party from its core business; it will also continue to foment an unhealthy air of tension and suspicion within the party as the suspended and dismissed members are restored to their positions by the courts pending final judgement.
The MCP stands uniquely positioned to present a real alternative to the current political status quo. This is a position that should neither be taken for granted or abused. Democracy is a sham when it does not provide a realistic alternative.
It is not enough for the MCP just to show up on the ballot box. It must demonstrate that it is capable of leading the country to a better place. The ruling party has to feel the possibility of losing the elections. Only then can it feel the need to improve its governance. Democracy works on the logic that competition serves as an incentive to better political performance by the competing parties. If the MCP cannot prove that it is democratic, tolerant and open, that it has mature and responsible leaders who care about the national interest, it does not deserve to be an opposition party, much less a ruling party. n