For a party notorious for its dark, undemocratic past that—among other mafia-like characteristics—murderously silenced dissenting voices during its three-decade long one-party dominance, the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) has since the return of multiparty politics consistently showed that it is the most democratic party in the country—at least if the process of electing its leaders is anything to go by.
Since 1994, MCP has strived to ensure that its members decide who the leader should be.
Of course, the panga-wielding thugs and the violence that engulfed the John Tembo-Gwanda Chakuamba rivalry during past MCP conventions were ugly, but at least by the end of the day, the will of the party’s cadres always triumphed over personal ambition.
Last week, again, MCP led the way with its free, fair and peaceful convention, even managing to put Baba in his right place—retirement.
What happened last Saturday was a classic case of intra-party democracy at work. MCP members threw out of the convention hall windows Tembo’s attempts at ‘third time lucky’ that nostalgically, at least to Tembo probably, propelled Zambia’s Michael Sata to Plot Number One, which is our cousins’ own version of Kamuzu Palace.
The octogenarian’s rumbling opening speech that lasted more than two hours without leaving any take-home messages, could not save the man who—in the run-up to the convention—tried all he could using any trick in his aged playbook to frustrate the other 11 competitors with questionable postponements, rules of the game willy-nilly change and sharp rebukes to anyone who did not toe his line.
Choked by defeat, the Leader of Opposition in Parliament dejectedly scampered home, forced to leave the stage for relatively new blood to compete on a level playing field for a chance to lead MCP into the May 2014 Tripartite Elections and, with luck, the rebirth of what should otherwise be a vibrant national party.
This is how the party minted 58-year-old former Assemblies of God president Reverend Dr. Lazarus Chakwera as its new president, replacing ‘dark past’ representative Tembo and immediately condemning him to the dustbins of history, a very eventful history in which the country’s longest parliamentarian has no legacy to write home about.
For party vice-president, MCP went for the youthful Richard Msowoya—a former Cabinet minister in the Bingu wa Mutharika government—wrapping up the party’s night of surprises as the rest of the positions turned out to be routine activities.
Chakwera, a pastor throughout his adult life, amassed 287 votes out of the 652 cast, representing a 44 percent share and 19 percentage points ahead of his closest rival— hastily retired chief justice Lovemore Munlo who got 169 votes.
Given that there were 11 contenders, winning over 44 out of every 100 delegates is a massive mandate and shows widespread acceptance of Chakwera as torch-bearer within the party’s rank and file.
Clearly, the MCP membership was looking for change and they got it. But is Chakwera the kind of change Malawi is looking for? It depends on how he plays his cards and numbers.
Granted, Malawians are tired of recycled politicians whose freshness is only viewed from the prisms of party promiscuity.
Most of current crop of top politicians prostituted themselves to MCP, then United Democratic Front (UDF), Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and now People’s Party (PP).
For most of these andale oyendayendas, the motive is the same as those people that line up along streets to parade their bodies and souls in exchange for money and influence.
But Malawians’ hunger for change does not necessarily mean that they will pick anybody professing to be that change agent.
Chakwera, if he wants to ride on the change mantra and ‘new politics’, must earn his place by demonstrating that he embodies that change. That means he must not allow himself to be sucked into the ‘old politics’ and old politicians with heavy baggage and tired legs that have been waiting for too many gravy trains along the railway lines and street corners. Achita zambiri amenewa. He does not need them.
It also means that the cleric must define the change he professes in easy and digestible messages.
Long speeches that are heavy with platitudes but light on substance, such as his acceptance speech on Sundayshould be discarded and a crisper stump speech be developed and consistently used.
The political momentum maybe on MCP’s side right now but one wrong move—that usually comes with presumptuousness, misjudgement of the electorate, scandal and careless statements, can easily turn momentum into nightmare. These issues have also turned front runners into an also-run.