As the battle for presidency rages in the governing party, one voice has conspicously remained absent—Vice President Saulos Chilima’s.
The writing is on the wall that the power play in the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is far from over, with President Peter Mutharika saying “the party is not for sale” and Chilima keeping mum on all the buzz about his ambition.
His silence has been loud and clear since former first lady Callista Mutharika endorsed his candidacy when she termed the incumbent too old to seek re-election next year.
The spat, which has left a gap in the political party, has left DPP executives pulling in different directions.
The differences in their preferences are much clearer than the Vice-President’s stand in the heated debate which is likely to benefit no one but himself.
The fallout, which began with a leaked WhatsApp conversation in which Callista backs Chilima to be on the ballot next year, has left party leaders taking sides.
Their loyalty to the party and its current leader has been tested, with youth leader Louis Ngalande, former minister Patricia Kaliati and national governing council member Noel Masangwi snubbing near-octogenarian Mutharika in preference for the youthful deputy.
According to this faction, the President’s age makes him “not fit” to keep ruling the country for the next five years.
Their harsh verdict has left the governing party with divisions never witnessed since its inception in 2005.
It seems the battle lines have been drawn and the plot thickens each passing day as the two sides go public to outmuscle each other in the press and during rallies.
The most outspoken speakers include Mutharika, who has repeatedly bared his ambition to retain the presidency beyond 2019.
Whipping his elegantly trimmed hair and beard, the 79-year-old has made it clear that he still has the energies and allure to lead the country to 2024, when his legally acceptable 10-year tenure expires.
This stance has jolted DPP executives, including the party’s outspoken secretary general Grezelder Jeffrey and regional vice-presidents Goodall Gondwe and George Chaponda, to come to his defence.
“Running a government is not for babies,” says Gondwe, the oldest Cabinet minister in DPP history, in reference to Chilima’s youthfulness.
However, Chilima’s voice has been missing.
His silence—if not indifference—has created room for speculation and uncertainties as the media try to extract meaning from his utterances.
Many Malawians are longing to hear where he stands in the widely publicised row that.
Does he really regard himself as the best option for DPP in 2019? Are those agitating for his promotion doing so with his knowledge and blessings—or peddling personal interests and vendettas?
Recently, Presidential press secretary Mgeme Kalirani called the integrity of Pro-Chilima voices into question, branding them disgruntled and self-seeking individuals who are pressurising Mutharika to give them contracts that may not be in the interest of Malawians.
Kaliati, who leads the women’s wing of the governing party, denies being a desperate tender-preneur.
She says she needs no contract because she is not a businessperson.
The debate over Chilima’s silent race to the top has now dragged long, questions keep piling and time for the vice-president to make his stance known seems to be running out.
As he perches in his silent corner, Malawians are afraid that the country could be on course to substitute a seemingly sluggish president with an aloof deputy.
Mutharika stands accused of being hugely detached from burning issues, having failed to resolve a University of Malawi (Unima) lecturers’ strike at the height for the fight for academic freedom which marred his reign as Minister of Education, Science and Technology before his rise to the helm.
Some questions are being asked if Chilima is less indifferent, given his failure to settle the fierce debate over his political future which has torn opinions in and outside DPP.
But Chancellor College political analyst Ernest Thindwa believes Chilima’s iconic silence could be symptomatic of a grave gap in the country’s political culture which does not take criticism kindly.
Parties in Malawi tend to be hostile to those who openly challenge incumbent presidents, says the political scientist based at Chancellor College.
Thindwa explains: “In circumstances where a party creates adequate democratic space and allows free expression of opinion and genuine debate during intra-party elections for office-bearers, I have no doubt, even in the slightest sense, that Chilima would have declared his position.
“But he acutely understands party politics in his party and others so well. Moses Dossi and Chimunthu Banda are classic examples of those who paid a heavy price for openly challenging the incumbency.”
But even as cagey as Chilima has been, it could be a mistake to dismiss the notion that he harbours ambitions to become the next president of Malawi.
“He is aware of both political and safety risks not only to himself but even to those who may support his candidature,” says Thindwa. “As such, he is being calculative. Certainly, his silence is a pointer that he has ambitions for the party presidency.”
Occupying the highest political office is the ultimate goal for any politician.
Chilima’s silence could be “a reflection of lack of democracy in political parties” vying to rule the country come May 21 2019 tripartite polls, says Thindwa.
He reckons that country’s political parties are not homely for reformists who want their elitist principles to evolve.
“Reformers have an epic task to deal with self-serving elites bent on maintaining the status quo which offers them political and economic gains,” he says.
At the moment, Malawians are waiting for the day the Vice-President will summon enough courage to make his stand clear.
“To remain silent is his democratic right and he needs not be forced to declare his position on contesting for party presidency. The party has not called for a convention and asked members to express their interest to contest for any position of their choice,” says Thindwa.
When asked for the justification of Chilima’s silence, his spokesperson Pilirani Phiri maintained a “no comment” stance that typifies the camp’s approach to the biggest political question in DPP.
They have maintained this stance for long.
Silence may be golden, but Chilima’s cannot hold forever—for, every day, it is becoming clear that he cannot deceive anyone.
If he wants, he may as well say so. If he does not, he has nothing to lose. After all, a stitch in time saves nine. n