Every time Vice-President Saulos Chilima goes at a political rally, he raises an issue that ends up dominating public discourse for months—a feat folks in the political communication field must be marvelling at with envy and respect while his opponents, if they comprehend what is really going on here, must fear.
Keeping alive a campaign’s issue content for months in this day of 24-hour news cycles is no mean achievement because sustaining agenda stability and continuity during campaigns is traditionally a short-term effort.
But somehow Chilima has been able to do it in a frighteningly sustained fashion.
It started with his 12-point campaign platform that he unveiled when officially launching his United Transformation Movement (UTM) at Masintha Ground in the capital Lilongwe in July. The point about creating one million jobs within one year of assuming government control if he pulls off a historic win in next year’s tripartite elections, created so much controversy—and buzz—that even today, it remains the single most talked about policy proposal that has stuck in people’s minds.
The issue became such a hot topic that President Peter Mutharika had no choice, but to weigh in roughly a month later at a whistle stop rally in Nkhotakota in August. “There is no way someone can create one million jobs in one year here in Malawi,” charged Mutharika.
But it was too late because Chilima was already running away with the issue.
More than two months after the Vice-President’s Masintha rally, the one million jobs matter remains one of the top most debated issues and it always pops up with Chilima’s name attached to it whenever people are discussing it.
A few weeks later, the Vice-President stalked people’s anger towards Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom).
In condemning fraud and corruption—the vices in which Escom has become their poster child—Chilima claimed, and the power utility later confirmed, that 3.8 million litres of diesel worth K1.9 billion had disappeared at Escom.
Today, the Escom diesel scandal is still one of the most talked about issues and continues to be portrayed as one of the many faces of corruption under the watch of President Peter Mutharika and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
Just a week ago, the Vice-President sparked a pigeon peas firestorm that has joined the public discourse arena, attracted parliamentary hearings and has since forced Finance, Economic Planning and Development Minister Goodall Gondwe to call for a press conference to address the matter.
Among other things, Chilima has made the Mutharika administration preoccupied with explaining things such as where the money for buying the produce has come from and who it is really benefitting because there are reports that it is big DPP businesspeople loyalists who will benefit, not the farmers.
As the DPP takes a defensive posture in some corner somewhere at Capitol Hill, the UTM war room is probably preparing another assault to keep them pinned to that pigeon peas corner, with no room and title to launch its own attack.
How long the pigeon peas story will last is not too hard to fathom, given the months the issues he has talked about have taken in public platforms.
Either way, Chilima is successfully building a damaging narrative—creating a caricature of the DPP as a morally bankrupt and corrupt regime that does not care about the little guy—the voter.
The Vice-President has become the guy who decides what issues must be debated during the campaign and the rest of the politicians follow, but on his terms.
Chilima has managed to draw the attention of the news media and the general public to discuss issues they otherwise would never have raised, certainly not with the same urgency of now.
In other words, he has boosted the weight of those issue considerations when voters choose candidates.
Make no mistake: the issues that candidates—and then the news media—discuss have strong potential to become voter priorities, greatly influence voting behaviour and shape what these days has become the first 100 days of an administration.
But Chilima is gaining something else: he is making people listen to him, which increases voters’ impressions of him as well.
And it is expanding his national name recognition that many thought he didn’t have and that there is not enough time to the voting day for him to achieve it. He has it in the bag within three months of launching his political platform.
One would have expected to see the governing party controlling the campaign’s issue content—after all, it is the ruling party that acts while those in opposition such as UTM only talks; thus DPP should have had an advantage in terms of public attention and that of the media, but, nay, it is following Chilima’s UTM like a puppy and like the rest of the opposition parties such as Malawi Congress (MCP), which is even trying to copy UTM’s party regalia!
Thus, in terms of the agenda-setting war, Chilima is winning this thing. Whether it can win him an election next year is another matter altogether.
But it makes him a dangerous opponent to have.