In the last two articles of this column, I have tried to make the point that the vice-presidency in Malawi is an important political office not because it serves as a check on the presidency, but because of its role in presidential succession. When a president loses capacity to act, is impeached or dies, the vice-president is constitutionally expected to ascend to the presidency. It is for this reason that Americans have popularised the idea that the vice-president is a ‘heartbeat away from the presidency’.
In the Malawian constitutional context, the vice-president does not just act as president in this situation; he or she becomes one. Moreover, the vice-president does not become president for a few months for purposes of facilitating new presidential elections as is the case in Zambia for example; he or she rules for the rest of the term.
This presidential succession scheme offers certainty and is cost effective. It also ensures that the person who succeeds has electoral legitimacy, to the extent that he or she was elected together with the president.
But it is the political certainty that this scheme offers which has bred problems. Malawian presidents seem uncomfortable with the idea that there is someone working under them who is guaranteed to succeed them should they die in office, become incapacitated or get impeached. This fear would not arise if these leaders understood that political leadership is a matter of national concern.
The reason why Malawian presidents have tended to marginalise their vice presidents has to do with attempts to domesticate the presidency. Once elected, Malawian presidents tend to think that the office of the president is family property that can be bequeathed to their brothers, sisters, children or other relatives.
This mindset goes against the fundamentals of our Constitution. The president has to have direct electoral legitimacy, but a lawfully elected president has no constitutional power to decide for the country who should succeed him. The person elected together with him or her is guaranteed to succeed, and that is because the electorate knew beforehand that this was a possibility.
If attitudes to domesticate the presidency were overcome, the office of the vice presidency would be valued for what the founders of our constitutional democracy intended; firstly, to assist the president in the discharge of his or her responsibilities, to act in his absence and to succeed under legally suitable circumstances.
Crucially, the choice of presidential running mates would be taken more seriously. Thus far, because of region-based voting patterns Malawi has witnessed, the choice of the running mate has been determined largely by the regional affiliation of the candidates. The aim has been to augment the presidential candidates’ cross-regional appeal or to maximise electoral support from a particular region.
Of course, it is morally wrong to use a person purely for purposes of garnering votes during electoral campaigns and then dump that person once the electoral contest has been won. This is what philosopher Emanuel Kant dubbed using a person solely as a means to an end. It constitutes a negation of that person’s human dignity.
While one cannot discount a candidate’s voter appeal in a particular electoral group, a more relevant consideration (derived from the Constitution) is whether the person is presidential. This consideration asks: does the person have the qualities that would be required for him or her to discharge not just the functions of the vice president, but more crucially those of the president? In many democratic states where this is applicable, the choice of a running mate is generally regarded as the first test of a presidential aspirant.
Paying attention to the skills set that a potential running mate has would allow for the election of a competent vice president, which in turn is good for the political programme and ambitions of the president and for the country in general. It takes a competent and confident president to know his or her strengths and weaknesses and those of his or her vice, and to ensure that the two complement each other in a way that maximises the performance of their government. The issue of in-term succession is fixed and closed by the Constitution. The issue of post-term succession relies solely on the electorate. There is no need to fear the vice-president.