UDF on a downward slope—Nandin Patel

One of Malawi’s main opposition parties, the United Democratic Front (UDF) is currently in leadership squabbles. Why is UDF failing to get out of the mess at this crucial time when the party should be rebuilding itself in preparation for the 2014 elections? EPHRAIM NYONDO speaks to political scientist Dr. Nandin Patel about this problem and how the party can move forward.

Q: What’s your general assessment of UDF as a political party?

 

A: There is a downward slope in the party. The slope can be reflected from two incidents. Firstly, after winning three consecutive elections, the party failed to field a presidential candidate for the fourth elections and tragic still, it joined hands with MCP and rallied behind Mr. John Tembo for the presidency. Secondly, the decline in the National Assembly from 85 seats (out of 177) in 1994 to 93 seats (out of 192), 49 seats in 2004 to 17 seats in 2009.

Q:What would you consider the root of all this?

 

A: There are three areas.

One, stage-managed party conventions: from no conventions to dubious conventions. The UDF did not hold any convention for over 10 years in blatant violation of its constitution, until the period immediately prior to 2004 elections when a highly stage-managed convention was held primarily to endorse the hand-picked presidential candidate. The UDF amended its party constitution in August 2003 to accommodate Dr Bingu wa Mutharika, who would not otherwise have been eligible to stand in the 2004 elections as the party’s presidential candidate under the party’s constitutional rules. The amendment was also tailored to accommodate Muluzi as national chairman after his retirement in June 2004.

Two, reckless amendments to party constitution.The above amendments and creation of the national chairmanship further aggravated the institutional and factional problems of the party. Mutharika’s elevation to party’s presidential candidate for 2004 polls at the behest of outgoing president Muluzi was done by sheer manipulation of the rules and procedures. Although other individuals were ostensibly allowed to express interest, the few who did were forced out of the party. Among those dismissed for expressing interest to contest for presidency were the late Aleke Banda, who had served the party as the first vice-president since 1994, and Harry Thompson, a founding member of the party.

The 2008 convention did not elect a presidential candidate as Muluzi, who perhaps had high hopes of a favourable ruling on his eligibility for presidency, did not even prepare a backup plan.

The UDF convention, being held with significant contribution from his personal funding, amended Article 39 of the Party Constitution to say, “The party’s presidential candidate after consulting NEC shall appoint the running mate.” In another change relating to the composition of NEC it says: “The party’s presidential candidate and his running mate shall be members of NEC even after the Parliamentary and Presidential elections provided she or he is a member of the party.” The implication of this rule change is that it is possible for the presidential candidate to nominate a vice-presidential candidate who is not a party member; even a person from another party. Thus, since NEC needs only to be ‘consulted’ the presidential candidate has now received a carte blanche from the party to pick his running mate entirely according to his own will.

Three, not applying rules: setting aside formal norms and rules and following informal practices. Shifting the dates of nomination meeting on short notice from one location to another, holding NEC meetings at the residence of party leader instead of party office, the use of violence against competitors and imposition of candidates from the Centre. The sole contender at the 2008 party convention, Cassim Chilumpha who dared to contest against Muluzi was not even given a chance to speak during the convention.

Q: Today, there is one side which is accusing former president Bakili Muluzi of framing the problems because he wants his son to run for the party presidency in the next general elections. The other side is arguing that those blaming Muluzi are afraid of Atupele’s popularity. Why is it that Atupele’s name is becoming the centre of controversy?

 

A: I see junior Muluzi coming out and declaring himself as presidential candidate for 2014 as a brave act, coming out of frustration from the ceaseless infighting and concern for the party. Atupele Muluzi was not formally launched in politics and brought in to UDF by his father, former president Muluzi, as is the case in other countries where the son, daughter or any other member of the family of Head of State/government is formally brought not only into the party but also given a position in the party on a platter. In fact, it was Friday Jumbe whom Muluzi chose as chairperson to lead the party in December 2010.

It is difficult to understand how it can it be unconstitutional for any member of a party to express a desire to contest for any position, especially in a situation where rules and procedures are occasionally and selectively applied.

Q: What would you consider the best way forward for the party?

 

A: One, come up with a core team of people in the party who never defected or compromised and make an effort to bring in those who were sidelined or expelled for holding dissenting views, the likes of Jan Jaap Sonke and Joe Manduwa.

Two, declare critical amendments to party constitution made in 2003 and 2008 null and void. Three, come out of this injunction business. By now, parties should realise that the courts may have an answer but not a solution which can be arrived at only by dialogue.

And lastly, take assistance from outside the party, from credible civil society members who understand the inextricable linkage between political parties and civil society in promoting democratic governance, and bodies like the Centre for Multiparty Democracy (CMD) and others in the party rebuilding exercise.

Q: Last comment?

 

A: The UDF is still a party with grass roots presence and I think this is the most critical time to save it from total collapse.

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