Honourable Folks, while all the four major parties—PP, DPP, MCP and UDF—have elected their presidential candidates democratically, it looks like the electorate will have to wait much longer to know who will represent these parties in the parliamentary and local government elections.
Voters are busy registering; the clock is ticking, showing eight months to the polls, yet the parliamentary candidates to be voted for, like the beautiful ones, are yet to be born.
The same is true of candidates for the local government polls. Nothing is being said about them yet, if the tripartite elections are going to be conducted in the spirit of the Constitution, both MPs and councillors are supposed to rise by the choice of the electorate, not the imposition of party leaders.
In the past, parties were hesitant to allow a level playing field when selecting presidential candidates. Through various machinations, cronies ensured the founder syndrome came into play in the selection process.
That’s how former president Bakili Muluzi came from retirement to become a presidential candidate for UDF in the 2009 polls despite having already exhausted his constitutional two consecutive terms. It took Malawi Electoral Commission and the courts to make him see he was ineligible. Unfortunately, when that happened it was too late for UDF to put forward another candidate.
Another imposition happened after the 2009 polls when cronies of the late Bingu wa Mutharika, not willing to let go of the family that allowed them to eat from its palms, declared Peter Mutharika his brother’s successor, saying the convention would only be convened to formalise their choice by endorsement.
But in the run-up to the 2014 polls the situation is different. PP’s Joyce Banda, DPP’s Peter Mutharika, UDF’s Atupele Muluzi and MCP’s Lazarus Chakwera were elected by candidates to their parties’ convention as presidential candidates. Now we hear Aford too intends to elect its presidential candidate through a convention.
That’s a major step forward for democracy in Malawi. What is not clear is whether the elected presidents and their executive committees would allow parliamentary candidates to emerge from transparent primaries.
In the past, there was the temptation to pick and choose candidates for certain constituencies, a practice that saw the birth of independents, non-existent in the first multiparty election in 1994, to become the second largest group in Parliament following the 2009 elections.
Party leaders interfere with primaries to appease cronies they consider loyal. In the past, presidents have tried in vain to campaign for such cronies, flying to their rural constituencies in a helicopter, threatening not to bring development to the areas if the imposed candidates are rejected only to see independents—often popular candidates shortchanged in the primaries—winning the seats.
On both sides of the political divide are MPs who think they did their parties a favour by staying put or defecting to the ruling PP after the death of Mutharika last year. Some of them think it’s only right for their parties to return the favour by imposing them on the electorate for the 2014 polls. Such cowards know their chances of winning on their own are slim because they let down their constituents. Will the parties do the right thing by ignoring such requests?
Ordinarily such a question shouldn’t arise because in democracy the power to choose parliamentary representatives rests with the people. But ours can sometimes be a country in which the powerful give out democracy to the people in half measures as a favour.
Perhaps the greatest favour the people deserve right now is just to know well their candidates for the parliamentary and local polls. To make the election issue-based, the electorate needs to know both the character and the message of all the contestants for the seat in the constituency. Such knowledge is key if people are to base their votes on substance and integrity.
If people don’t know the candidates and the issues they stand for well enough, they end up voting for wakwathu or wakwithu or wakumangwetu (someone from home). Often, corrupt politicians—and they are many in our midst—see nothing wrong with that as long as elections take place. That’s democracy at work, they’d say.