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Two months after losing the court-sanctioned Fresh Presidential Election on June 23, the former governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) faces a succession crisis that threatens its survival and ability to be an effective opposition outfit.
Events are happening at lightning speed. First, secretary general Grezelder Jeffrey told The Nation edition of August 25 2020 that leader of the party and the country’s immediate-past president Peter Mutharika needed to be replaced through a possible early convention, having played his part.
But yesterday, Mutharika responded by dismissing Jeffrey from her position and reportedly told her not to attend a planned national governing council (NGC) meeting at his private residence in Mangochi today.
However, Jeffrey, in an interview, said she will not be pushed aside: “People within the party want a convention. They feel it [the convention] is important in rebuilding the party. I will not resign. I will remain within the party and remain as secretary general… I am not going anywhere.
“The only congress to remove me is the convention. Trust what I say, the convention will take place. What is happening is politics.”
Meanwhile, Thyolo Central legislator Ben Malunga Phiri—a longtime aide of Mutharika—has also stepped down from the position of director of elections Mutharika had entrusted him with.
In a letter dated August 17 2020, Phiri, widely counted among DPP bigwigs, said his decision was based on the fact that Mutharika and the DPP lost the court-ordered election; hence, his stepping down to pave the way for new brains to take the party forward.
The June 23 Fresh Presidential Election gave President Lazarus Chakwera of Malawi Congress Party (MCP), but who has been leading a nine-party Tonse Alliance, a five-year mandate. This means that the next election would be held in 2025.
What should DPP do to remain a force to reckon with on the political front and probably reclaim power?
Political analysts The Nation interviewed on the developments agreed that DPP was headed for doom if issues of succession and leadership in general are not well managed.
Socio-political and rights activist George Phiri said DPP needs a convention or national conference to keep itself intact. He said dismissing those deemed to hold dissenting views was undemocratic.
He said: “The message the party is sending is that it does not want to listen to people, that Mutharika does not understand what democracy means.
“If the party is not ready for a convention, they should just have said so instead of firing people. DPP needs a convention now because its image is dented with corruption. It needs new leadership to start afresh, leaders that can bring transformation.”
On the other hand, political scientist Ernest Thindwa of Chancellor College, a constituent college of the University of Malawi, said Mutharika, 80, should appreciate that he was advanced in age; hence, does not have the energy to take the party forward.
He said the action against Jeffrey showed that DPP was dictatorial and refuses to be democratic.
Said Thindwa: “Jeffrey is entitled to expressing her views and DPP should encourage and facilitate free-flow of ideas and opinions to benefit from a diversity of views. But if they keep on cracking on alternative voices, the party will be stuck and will continue getting weaker.
“These parties are not yet ready to accommodate democratic ideals. Mutharika himself must know that the party’s image under him is dented and clinging to power will not help.”
What broke the camel’s back?
Jeffrey said Mutharika—who led the party back into government in May 2014 after two years in opposition following the death of its founding president Bingu wa Mutharika—had done his part. She said DPP needs a new person to lead it into the future.
Her sentiments came days after DPP regional governor for the North Christopher Mzomera Ngwira admitted that some sections of the party membership were calling for Mutharika’s replacement to start rebuilding the party after its loss.
DPP lost the June 23 Fresh Presidential Election to Chakwera who partnered Mutharika’s then estranged Vice-President Saulos Chilima of UTM Party on the presidential ticket. The winning pair amassed 58 percent of the vote.
During yesterday’s interview, Jeffrey said there was no written communication on her dismissal.
She said she was verbally communicated not to attend the party’s national governing committee meeting at Mutharika’s beach residence in Mangochi today.
Jeffrey said: “I have also been told that I should not do any party work. That’s the communication. The matter is about the convention which I called for and remember you [The Nation] wrote about the story of the convention and I think that’s the major issue.”
But Jeffrey said only the convention which elected her has the mandate to remove her.
DPP administrative secretary Francis Mphepo and publicity secretary Nicholas Dausi did not pick our calls on several attempts yesterday while Mutharika’s executive assistant Linda Salanjira kept cutting her line.
However, DPP vice-president for the North Goodall Gondwe, in an interview, described the developments as unfortunate. He said both the issue of Jeffrey and Phiri’s resignation would be discussed at today’s meeting.
He said the other issues to be tackled include matters surrounding the party’s leadership and convention.
Said Gondwe: “I didn’t know that she has been told not to attend the meeting. But we will sit down and talk out all these issues. In the end, common sense will prevail. The point is that we must emerge as a united party.
“We will see what happens during the meeting, but we will discuss this matter. I don’t think they are difficult issues, we will resolve them.”
Since leaving office following his election loss, Mutharika has not made a public appearance.
But the former president—who rose to the top of the party largely through the influence of his deceased brother and DPP founding president Bingu wa Mutharika—has indicated through his Facebook page that he would not leave DPP alone even after earlier stating that he wants to spend the rest of his life as a private citizen.
In a July 23 2020 Facebook post, he pledged to continue fighting to the end, an indication he wants remain in charge for some time.
He said: “Come next election, DPP will be bouncing back into government and I will render all my support to make sure this is achieved as we did between 2012 and 2014.”
However, a senior member of DPP who did not want to be mentioned for fear of reprisals confided yesterday that Mutharika was displaying dictatorial traits and vowed that this would not be tolerated.
Said the party member: “These are things that made us lose elections and we now want to rebuild the party so no one should be coming out firing people anyhow. Only a convention can remove Jeffrey. Mutharika is being undemocratic; he is completely being misled on these issues.”
Before Jeffrey’s remarks shared by Ngwira, DPP was already embroiled in controversy with some members lobbying that its vice-president for the South and Leader of Opposition in Parliament Kondwani Nankhumwa should take charge. Besides, there is also a faction pushing for the resignation of party member Brown Mpinganjira.
The party is also losing some members of Parliament to UTM Party and MCP, partner parties in the Tonse Alliance administration.
Origins of DPP
DPP was founded in February 2005 by Bingu wa Mutharika after he unceremoniously ditched the United Democratic Front (UDF), the party that sponsored his presidential ticket in May 2004 after then president Bakili Muluzi handpicked him into the post.
The party won its first general election in 2009 for a five-year mandate tragically cut short by the death of Bingu in April 2012. His then estranged vice-president Joyce Banda ascended to the presidency in line with constitutional order to complete the term.
Banda was earlier fired from DPP for allegedly forming parallel party structures amid political machinations to groom Peter Mutharika for succession.
Banda and her sympathisers, who started what was called Friends of Joyce Banda, then registered People’s Party which lost the May 2014 Tripartite Elections won by DPP.
However, the ‘split ghost’ came back to haunt DPP midway into the new term as Peter Mutharika faced calls to quit by a group called Chilima Movement that canvassed for then estranged Vice-President Saulos Chilima to lead the party. Chilima subsequently resigned and formed UTM Party.