2019 polls demand innovative campaign strategies

The time is here. Yes, in just 10 days, the ignored dusty roads from Chitipa to Nsanje will once again turn busy with desperate politicians in the hunt for votes. Well, we all anticipated this moment, but as usual, we on the streets, will be looking for substance from politicians to determine our vote.

At this level, we can thank our political parties, particularly the new blood UTM, ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Malawi Congress Party (MCP), United Democratic Front(UDF) and People’s Party (PP); among the major political parties, for keeping the political debate flowing. However, many thanks should go to the UTM, whose formation in 2018 seems to have forced many political parties, including the ruling to retire earlier from break time.

Ofcourse, we enjoyed politics of criticism before UTM spearheaded by MCP president Lazarus Chakwera against the DPP, but the launch of UTM, ostensibly shifted the narration from a two-horse race to many against the ruling party. The phenomenon promised a strong coalition to unseat the DPP. This, although no literature supports it, had a strong bearing on the voting decisions. But now that almost all fruitful coalitions have failed, the voting decisions on the ground should also be scattered.

No political party can stand up and claim to be in control of the voting decisions on the ground now. This is why we on the streets believe the campaign period starting on March 19 will decide the winners.  We say this because our politicians have had over six months of political conflict—castigating each other and display their violent acts against rivals. Observably, they are tired and now busy refueling ahead of the official campaign period. It is up for debate if whether the political race stimulated by UTM in 2018 gave Malawians anything new.

Importantly, it is time our political parties ask themselves what kind of political campaign can pull a surprise come May 21. There seem to be no definite answer to this though and it remains ambivalent, but one thing is certain, Malawians are tired of politics of lies and deceitful leadership.

From past experiences, Malawi’s political campaigns ahead of elections are tied to handouts and promises. But it seems lies on developmental projects are costing people’s trust in politicians.

In this era, promises like the one by former President Bakili Muluzi, to buy shoes for everyone once voted into power, cannot work from any angle now. On handouts, it is high time our politicians appreciate that branded political party materials stopped winning elections. Voters get more than one branded party materials (clothe) from different political parties, but their voting decision remains intact. Even money, can hardly buy a vote today. Attendance at political rallies too does not symbolise loyalty to a particular party.

This is why when you go round, you hear someone say “AMalawi anachangamukatu pano” (Malawians are now clever). They mean people’s voting decisions are no longer for sale. Thus, the 2019 campaign should take new approaches.

It should also be noted that the media no longer controls people’s voting decisions. Studies indicate that what the people discuss in their homes and other places is what shapes majority voting decisions. Yes, there continue to be a growing intuition among voters that politicians abuse the media. Thus, strategies to influence political discussions at home level are vital tactics that can pull a surprise in this election.

There is also another group of frustrated voters whose decisions are tied to their frustrations. You may think of graduates who have stayed home for five years without a job. Such groups are likely to seek an alternative leadership, hoping for new jobs. Others voting decisions are yoked to tribalism, regionalism and ofcourse hatred and it requires more than normative approaches to campaigning to disentangle these traditions from the 2019 polls.

This year’s elections campaign will be exciting unless the political vocabulary spelt-out during the last quarter of 2018 was just politics without prospects. For this article, we can confidently say the 2019 polls will be a three-horse race involving DPP, MCP and UTM with UDF and PP closing the top five. As these finalise their strategies, they need to tighten their bolts. We foresee political campaign framed around ‘dismissing’ and ‘discrediting’ to write-off rivals and spread wings.n

Albert Sharra is a PhD student in Political Studies at Wits University and is a guest writer of this column*

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