It looks like a cunning and well-calculated move. Whether the outcomes are good or bad for him is another matter.
But somehow, on both occasions, President Peter Mutharika has managed to make two events—one in which he did not attend and the other in which he was the only presidential candidate who showed up—all about him.
He certainly grabbed the headlines while his challengers got drowned out by news of the President’s involvement and lack thereof in the national prayers.
On Thursday this week, Mutharika was the undisputed lone star at the second national prayers for peaceful elections in one week after his challengers boycotted the event.
Last Saturday, the President was also some sort of a star at the National Prayers and Signing of Peace Declaration by Presidential Candidates event at Bingu International Convention Centre in Lilongwe simply by not showing up.
Instead, he opted for a series of campaign rallies in the Northern Region as six of the other candidates challenging him for the presidency sat with delegates that the Public Affairs Committee (PAC) had organised.
The president’s prioritisation of campaigning at the expense of praying together with other major stakeholders in the electoral process and commitment to sustain peace during the polls was a lost opportunity for the President whose Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is increasingly snared as the most violent party in this election cycle.
There is no doubt that his inability to be part of that process—without a convincing reason—could be seen as though Mutharika is not worried about the escalating political violence largely driven by his party.
For a leader who should be playing a unifying role during this time, the boycott was unfortunate for which history could judge him harshly.
Yet, just as he did by ignoring the presidential candidates’ debate, he has managed to make himself the centre of headline news by doing everything on his terms.
On Thursday, President Mutharika basked in the glare of attention as he was the only presidential candidate from a major party attending the Presidential Prayer Breakfast at Kamuzu Palace in the capital city.
Those vying to replace him at the State House where he played host and participant yesterday—including Malawi Congress Party’s Lazarus Chakwera, UTM Party’s Saulos Chilima and United Democratic Front’s Atupele Muluzi—gave Mutharika a dose of his own medicine by declining to be his guests at the presidential mansion. I have no problem with the decision that the other candidates took.
After all, the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi gives one the right to associate with others or not just as Mutharika decided that he did not want to mix with the company that gathered at the Chinese-built five-star hotel in Lilongwe.
Indeed, I can understand that they already lost a day of campaigning to Mutharika last Saturday, so why should they squander another one to pray again for the same elections when they had already done so a few days earlier?
I mean, we are only two weeks to elections so time is of the essence. Presidential candidates who boycotted the prayers at Kamuzu Palace cited, among other reasons, “tight schedules”, “security concerns” and that the venue is “not a neutral place” as the factors for not attending.
Personally, the reasons cited are just chaff because this is basically a tit-for-tat game.
These stay-away presidential candidates are simply trying to project the image of being on equal terms and equal footing with the incumbent.
By going to State House—the President’s official home—they would already be at a disadvantage, with Mutharika looking presidential and in charge while the opposition presidential candidates would have looked like school children in the headmaster’s office.
The optics would have been powerful for President Mutharika, but diminutive for his challengers quacking in their chairs while he stood on the dais as the reigning king of the manor. They would have been forced to pay homage to the man they believe they can beat, so they stayed away; only to make him the only star on live television—and the main newspapers.
Not bad APM, not bad at all.