Political legitimacy: a tall order for leaders

Just a day after the Catholic Bishops released the April 29, 2018 pastoral letter calling for a new era in Malawi, one audio clip made rounds on social media, particularly WhatsApp, creating what I would call a ‘dimensional debate’.

In the clip, Father Ernest Mwinganyama of Mangochi Diocese addresses a congregation.

Ine ndingokufunsani. Kodi mwamulemba mlonda, ntchito ya mlonda nkutani? Kulondera eti? Kodi akamalondera katunduyo ndiwake?” [When you employ a security guard, what is his duty? Ensuring the safety of your property, not so? Does the property become his?”]

Using parables, the priest evokes a sense of responsibility among leaders by likening political leadership to a security guard’s duty.

Corruption has left his political legitimacy at stake: Mutharika

Nde alonda ena akumaganiza kuti katunduyo ndi wawo. Aiwala kuti ndi alonda. Aiwala kuti mwini katundu ndi a Malawi,” [It would appear some security guards think the property is theirs. They have forgotten that they are security guards. They’ve forgotten that the property belongs to Malawians].

In this dramatised and simplified narration of the pastoral letter, the preacher reinforces two critical issues raised in the pastoral letter. In a  democracy, the clergy highlight that Malawi’s major political problem is lack of trust between leaders and the electorate. They say the leaders hardly demonstrate servant leadership to serve the interests of the electorate and instead want to be glorified.

“In Malawian society, the big man syndrome is prevalent. There is need for the country’s leadership to revisit their constitutional mandate which is to govern solely for the benefit of the people of Malawi and to appreciate that they hold their positions on trust.

“…Malawi as a nation needs a change of direction if we are to reverse the situation. We mean a total change in the way of doing things,” reads in part the pastoral letter.

The clergy lament worsening mistrust, increasing corruption and a general perception of the failure of political institutions to address the basic needs including energy, health, education and infrastructure as well as the failure to tackle the wealth gap and provide access to opportunities”.

Fifty-four years after independence, Malawi remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Since the dawn of multiparty dispensation, serious corruption cases in which senior government officials and those in the private sector are implicated have been exposed.

The last decade has, however, been the worst. The 2017 Corruption Perception Index shows Malawi has fallen by two places from 120 in 2016 to 122. Hope for change is not even within.

Deatils contained in the recently leaked Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) investigation report on Malawi Police Service (MPS) food rations procurement deal, which allegedly implicates President Peter Mutharika, is one fresh example of rising cases of corruption that cost the public trust over government.

In an earlier interview, Chancellor College political analyst Ernest Thindwa said Malawi politicians take advantage of high illiteracy levels to abuse the voters and their resources.

However, some scholars say poor leadership, particularly increased corruption and failure to provide basic services to the citizens has cost many governments public trust and raise political legitimacy questions.

Political commentator Rafik Hajat says political legitimacy is lost the moment political leaders breach the law.

“The Constitution is a social contract between people who agree to be governed and those who agree to be governors.If leaders do not respect the Constitution, it leads to chaos and this cost them political legitimacy,” he says.

Hajat explains that corruption and abused election processes by politicians also create mistrust and make the voters start advocating for its downfall.

Recently, civil society organisations (CSOs) and opposition political parties have called for Mutharika to step down over the MPS procurement scandal.

However, Mutharika is not the first to lose voters’ trust. His brother Bingu, the first democratically elected president, Bakili Muluzi and Malawi’s first female president Joyce Banda also faced voters mistrust and the legitimacy of their administration was questioned. Nonetheless, none has been forced out of government before the end of the tenure.

In his PhD thesis titled Unpacking the Political Legitimacy of Parliament in an Emerging Democracy: The Case of Malawi, 1994-2011, Michael Jana highlights some of the determinants of political legitimacy in African emerging democracies and propelling factors. In the study, Jana looks at political legitimacy from two folds—citizens liability versus political leaders responsibility.

The study found that in most African democracies, the major factor is that voters regard political leaders as parents.

In an interview, Jana said if leaders do not treat citizens as parents would fend for their children, the parents are deemed to have failed and this affects their performance based legitimacy.

On the other hand, he argues, treating leaders as parents (as opposed to treating them as employees) affects their accountability because they treat citizens as their children.

While referring to the April 29 pastoral letter, Jana says the major take away message is that Malawians need to change their mindset. They should consider political leaders as their employees and hold them to account.

“Malawians should know that they hire and they pay these political leaders and that they can demand accountability at any time and can fire them if they don’t perform,” he says.

Jana says complaining about poor performance all the time and doing nothing about it, is like an employer, who is complaining about the poor performance of his employee and does nothing about it.

“That’s how absurd it is. By doing nothing about it, Malawians are complicit in the poor government performance,” says the Johannesburg-based political analyst.

He observes that politicians continue to use bio-cultural symbolisms to hoodwink Malawians into believing that they are not employees who can be held accountable, but that they are in fact parents who are untouchable and invincible serving children.

The use of Ngwazi and Nkhoswe Number 1 by founding president Hastings Kamuzu Banda, Amai by Joyce Banda, Chitsulo cha Njanji by Bingu and now Adadi by Peter Mutharika are some of the symbolisms that have significant effect on Malawians’ mindset.

“They have an effect on accountability and help leaders to treat voters as their children and not employees because the scenario gives them more power and power corrupts them,” says Jana.

But Hajat warns:“It is no longer time to underestimate voters. They are civilised and affected by poor leadership and so can pull a surprise.”

Hajat and Jana propose a total change of doing things, including operations of both formal and informal restraint mechanisms such as Parliament, ACB, CSOs to make them more efficient to task leaders to prioritise the interests of the citizens first.

Bo Rothstein, a US scholar, argues that political legitimacy is created, maintained and destroyed, not at the input, but at the output side of the political system. His argument is that political legitimacy depends on the quality of government and not the popularity of the candidate.n

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