In his book, Trappings of Power: Political Leadership in Africa, Barrister and Governance Consultant Allan Ntata traces former parliamentarian Abel Kayembe as the original member of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) reform faction whose other notable members included Ishmael Chafukira, Godfrey Kamanya and Titus Malipa.
The writer notes that the movement gained further notoriety when Kayembe and Malipa were roughed–up by an alleged John Tembo faction at a meeting held at the party’s headquarters in Lilongwe soon after the 2009 general elections.
A few months later, Kayembe was leader of opposition in Parliament, courtesy of the majority Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the House.
Once at the helm, Kayembe, in an attempt to extend an olive branch towards the Tembo camp in the House, was praised when he said: “We are a generation of politicians who believe in forgiveness and reconciliation.”
And when they felt the group could not win the ’fight’ from within, Kamanya and his fellow ‘rebels’ finally dumped MCP for DPP; vowing never to return to their ‘vomit’. They were rewarded with positions in government for their efforts.
But after six years, a fortnight ago Kayembe told the media: “Political statements, even those that include the word ‘never’ are only intended to highlight and dramatise a point, and not to express a gospel truth.”
He was being welcomed back into the MCP at a rally in Mchinji together with other returnees.
The other returnees included Sosten Gwengwe, who was 2014 People’s Party (PP)’s presidential runningmate, former parliamentarian George Zulu, former DPP regional governor for the centre Kalazi Mbewe and Agnes Mkusa.
Party president Dr Lazarus Chakwera was himself present at the function to welcome back into the fold the party’s prodigals.
Every one of them displayed some remorse and took turns to shower praises on the side they dumped not long ago with Zulu, capping it all: “We researched and found that it is Chakwera who has the vision for this country.”
Gwengwe, on the hand, said he feels as a politician, it was only fair to return to the MCP, a party he “was born and would die in”.
Said Gwengwe: “Any politician has their political base and mine is the MCP. I know mistakes happen in politics and I know I had my own gaffes. I tried something else and it failed; that I have to admit. But I had to feel for the 11 000 people who voted for me in the last election. It means they were left in the wilderness.
“I am bringing them back home where everyone will be a winner. With them, I believe we will make the party stronger as we will all support the vision of the party.”
Although attributing the change of mind to calls from the electorate is widely regarded as a desperate attempt by the concerned politicians to add a democratic flavour to their personal choices, it has to be said that neither the recent returnees nor the parent party did nothing new; not in the context of the local political landscape.
But what do these defections and backsliding say about values in as far as political parties are concerned? Is Malawi politics about values or individual survival?
Institute for Policy Research and Social Empowerment (IPRSE) executive director Dr Henry Chingaipe says party hopping roots from self-interest.
“Although politicians claim that they are asked by their constituents to ditch one party for another, the plain truth is that they do this at their own will and mostly in pursuit of self-interests be they political, economic or otherwise,” said Chingaipe.
According to him, the frequency indicates the low regard the politicians have for their constituents. In fact, he said, although they try to sugarcoat the behaviour with democratic labels, it is a political practice that has less to do with democracy than elitocracy.
“In some cases, the reasons for leaving a party are so genuine that it is only by leaving the party that their personal integrity is maintained. However, my view is that such movements have been very few. Most of the movements in this country have been propelled by sheer self-interest,” said Chingaipe.
For him, this party hopping also shows that some political parties have no set ideologies.
Added Chingaipe: “It also shows that despite efforts to shift our politics from being personality-centered the politicians still believe in political ‘god-fatherism’ for political success—an element of political culture that creates and promotes the ‘big man’ syndrome in politics and undermines internal democracy in the political parties.”
But Chingaipe was hesitant on whether the recent additions to the MCP are a sign of the party regaining its faded glitter, saying knowing the character of politicians; no one is certain of why politicians return to their parties or why they dump them in the first place.
Probably the other issue that such ‘hoping about’ would have, negate on the voting pattern but it is a non- starter here; Malawi has no known systematic study about this issue.
Over the years, voters in the country have been observed to be motivated by two factors in making choices over candidates in elections: the character or personality of the candidates and their political affiliation.
Civil Society Grand Coalition spokesperson Lucky Crown-Mbewe could not agree more when he said, “As it is, politicians can afford to hop from one party to another or from a party to being independent or vice versa and they are still re-elected. In short, the effect of the movements on electoral fortunes depends on whether the concerned politicians contest in constituencies where voters reward party affiliation more than personal merits of character.”
But one thing that is certain is that MCP should brace itself for more intra-party politicking ahead of the 2019 polls as these ‘prodigals’ are still wounded buffaloes eyeing to reclaim their lost seats in or via the party! n