Chakwera’s gambit

It’s been a long time since Malawi Congress Party (MCP) last tasted levers of power but we will not wait long to find out if the decision by MCP president Lazarus Chakwera, to name— early— his running mate for next May’s presidential elections, was a masterstroke.

Or that giving the berth to politician-cum-businessperson, Sidik Mia, was the last jigsaw that solves MCP’s elusive election winning puzzle—something that has alluded the country’s oldest party since return of democracy in 1994.

All we can do is haphazard a few guesses on why Chakwera has opted for Mia: his rumoured wealth, regional politics or pressure from within the party.

Indeed, ever since Gwanda Chakuamba ditched MCP after losing the seemingly permanent leadership fight with nemesis John Tembo, MCP has struggled to win any votes in the southern region.

That for the first time— since Chakuamba’s era—the party won a parliamentary seat in Nsanje district (while nationally resoundingly winning 5 out of six contested by-election seats), means the Mia effect should not be wished away.

In each past presidential election, MCP has always come close, but nominally fell short of victory. A carefully picked 2019 running mate was one of the strategies supposed to fix that shortfall, by ensuring the party boasts its votes where it has traditionally polled dismally.

With the recent IPOR study indicating Chakwera is statistically tied in the presidential race with incumbent Peter Mutharika, an alliance with another party such as former president, Joyce Banda’s People’s Party or Vice President Saulos Chilima’s United Transformation Movement (UTM) was more attractive option.

Chakwera, perhaps motivated by other calculations, has passed the option.

Still smarting from the party’s recently-quelled bitter internal fights, Chakwera might have been afraid of upsetting Mia—and risk another internal civil war. And the ugliness of the rhetoric from some senior MCP officials when publicly pushing back the alliance suggestion, reveals the volumes of pressure Chakwera was placed under to pick Mia and why he has broken with tradition to announce his running mate early.

If that’s the rationale, one of way of seeing it is that Chakwera’s political stamina is very questionable but a more generous view would be that he is calculated.But something else must be addressed.

While protecting the slot for its benefactor, the pro-Mia MCP faction, almost inevitably for politicians, sold us a few lies, chief among them, that MCP mustn’t go into an alliance because the other parties are “compromised and tainted.”

We know, with gruesome certainty, that this is disingenuous. And you don’t have to look further than Mia, who has been UDF, DPP, PP, UDF, retired and now MCP, to realise that the new MCP is full of old recycled folks who fits the “compromised and tainted” billing.

But whatever you make of it, Mia will bring MCP some votes. Mia will also be found repulsive mostly likely by some of the very voters who can’t vote for “compromised and tainted.”

In 2014, the ‘Chakwera for President’ euphoria profited from a nationwide yearning for change. The youth, educated and urban class were very much the cornerstone of this movement.

Today, those voters, as the IPOR study told us, are readying to vote Chilima.

Part of the explanation is that after serving in public office for four years, Chakwera is no longer the exciting ‘breathe of fresh air candidate’ he was four years ago. Back then, he was an eloquent—still is— ordinary church folk who looked like ‘one of us’.

He was not rich and represented a party that had not been in power for a long time—hence not “tainted and compromised” in the eyes of substantial number of voters. Hence Chakwera could lambast the other parties that had given us cashgate and other excesses of the democratic era.

That allure is gone. A running mate alone can’t fixed that but by settling for Mia of the same old establishment he once attacked, Chakwera’s pragmatism has made full circle.

Next year, Chakwera will find out, alongside the rest of us, if his party—and own transformation—has been received positively by the voters and whether, finally, MCP’s exile from power can come to an end.

Next year, however, is Chakwera’s last chance at getting State House, in Mia, he must pray, he has thrown a winning gambit. n

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