No offence to the 30-plus other party leaders, but it is clear (in no particular order) that President Joyce Banda of PP, the Reverend Lazarus Chakwera of MCP, Atupele Muluzi of UDF and Peter Mutharika of DPP have the most credible shot at the presidency.
With this in mind, it is now time to stimulate serious conversation on the quartet’s suitability for high office based, among other benchmarks, on policy positions, character, temperament, world view and their records in whatever positions they may have held before launching bids to run Malawi plc.
She is the most experienced public servant among the four, having been a parliamentarian, Minister of Gender, Vice-President and now President, among other positions. These posts, coupled with her charity work, have given Mrs. Banda the kind of nationwide name-recognition and global profile that the rest of the candidates can only envy. But there is a caveat to this exposure. Out of the four, she is the only candidate who has belonged to all the top four parties—MCP, UDF, DPP and PP in that order. This party-hopping may bring up questions about her integrity, loyalty and ability to stand for anything ideologically. Most damaging perhaps is that she may be associated—fairly or unfairly—with all the dirt and failures of all the four parties and that is a lot of political excess baggage to carry. Mrs. Banda may also have to navigate around the tag that she is part of a crop of ‘establishment’ or ‘insider’ political leaders that have failed our democracy, ransacked the public purse and stagnated social and economic development by putting personal aggrandisement ahead of public good. Furthermore, as US political strategist James Carville once said, “It’s the economy, stupid.” President Banda’s economic reforms may have stabilised the economy as her administration and its supporters claim, but it is only the rich, the financial sector and a few politically connected folks that have recovered along with it. The poor, who were the first to be hard hit by the economic changes, remain in the dungeon with little sign that anyone will pull them out. That is a dangerous trajectory for Mrs. Banda. It may hurt her chances.
There is very little to write about the Reverend Lazarus Chakwera, a situation that is both good and bad. On the bright side, it means that he goes on the electoral field without being fully vetted and that so far, he has a fairly clean slate unless scandal from his days as Malawi Assemblies of God president or ill-advised comments bring him down. But so far, he is a new face that some people see as embodying real change; someone not tainted by the excesses of power, political wheel dealing, brinkmanship, posturing and their attendant corruption. He has the momentum now. The downside is that the absence of name recognition among the general populace other than evangelicals means that he has to work extra hard to plant himself in voters’ minds.
His most expensive liability is that he is his father’s son. His dad, Bakili Muluzi, is that fellow who ran this country like a hawker, is currently answering corruption related charges and watched with a smirk as his minions stripped the Republican Constitution ready to rape it before some patriots stopped the democratic predators with their pants around their ankles. Individually, Atupele has achieved little. When he had the opportunity to show that he could actually run something—the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development—he ran away to papa as soon as Uladi ‘Chenjigolo’ Mussa started teasing and bullying him. Then there is Agenda for Change that does not even have an agenda. These weaknesses notwithstanding, Atupele is still a strong contender. He has his father’s populist political skills; has a fairly clean personal record so far, could run neck-in-neck with President Banda in the Eastern Region and may benefit from the youth vote at national level. If he can effectively define himself and his Agenda for Change platform on his own terms before others do it for him in a negative way, Atupele is competitive.
Sharing a name with a villain such as Bingu wa Mutharika is already a back-breaking load. Working for him and failing miserably does not help matters either when you are running for a position that your mentor, who happens to be your brother, messed up big time with yourself as a key adviser. Peter Mutharika, after serving as his brother’s close advisor and confidant became a Cabinet Minister for various portfolios, including Justice, Education and Foreign Affairs. And just follow the crises that unfolded and spiraled unanswered and out of control on his watch, some of which, such as the academic freedom saga while he was at Education, literary threw the country into chaos. Can he lead? Is he his own man? Then there is the small matter of his communication skills. Mis-speaking and mis-communication keep following him the moment he opens his mouth. That said, the Mutharika brand remains popular among certain voting blocs and Peter has resources at his disposal. As a good friend of mine said in his drunken stupor, undermine Peter at your own peril.