Why all candidates should dread 21 May

Hon Folks, it’s amazing how hard presidential candidates are working, going to forsaken places  in rural Malawi to beg for votes as the D-Day—May 21, 2019—is slowly but surely approaching.

They brave the rain and the putrid smell of abject poverty rocking many neglected and hard-to-reach rural areas to take messages of hope to the constituency that matters most in election times—the rural where  85 percent of the population is based.

The campaign is always hardest for the party already in government. It has to find a way of making the electorate believe their deprivation—food insecurity, lack of potable water, dwindling standards of education, poor public health delivery, roads that are impassable in the rainy season, no market for pulses and other farm produce, soaring unemployment rate and generally very low living standards—will be tackled once their candidate, incumbent President, is given a fresh mandate.

At the launch of the governing DPP manifesto in Lilongwe on April 7 2019, APM said he had looked at the manifestos for MCP and UTM—two of its major rivals, the third being UDF—and observed that what they were promising is what DPP was already implementing.  He wondered why the two parties couldn’t just throw their weight behind DPP.

It appears DPP spin-doctors have engaged the over-drive in their campaign messages, arguing that in 2019 the important choice is between development which, they claim, DPP is already doing and politics which, they also claim, the other contestants are in the race for. It’s a clever rendition of the adage: ‘people don’t eat politics’ or, put differently, you don’t change what’s already working superbly well.

There’s no denying it’s a line of thought that has a following as attested to by the number one position DPP assumed in the Ipor study. I still believe, the question that still matters is whether incumbency has helped APM to add to his 2014 numbers. My take is that that’s quite unlikely if only because Chilima’s UTM, rated among the largest three political parties on Malawi, has as its foundation a breakaway group from the same governing DPP. 

Besides, APM’s first term is without the wow factor that characterised both Bakili Muluzi’s (1994-1999) and Bingu wa Mutharika’s (2004-2009). Bakili did spectacularly well on respect for human rights and tolerance for dissenting views during his first term of office. The economy was also stable and growing.

On his part, Bingu did spectacularly well, growing the economy by an average 7.5 percent per annum. His policies on agriculture may have been criticised by IMF and the opposition but he won the hearts of many people by quickly transforming our status from food beggars to maize donors, mesmerising the world with the food security miracle, a rare feat in the Sadc region and much of the rest of Africa in those days.

There were no qualms when DPP strategists affixed to Bingu’s name the title Ngwazi, effectively placing Bingu at par with first President Kamuzu Banda who used to say in as far as agriculture was concerned, development partners used to rate Malawi under his leadership as a “star performer.”

But Bingu’s major coup, in my opinion, is that while in 2004 he was elected on UDF ticket with a meagre 35.97 percent of the votes, he ditched his base and endeared himself to the majority who had denied him their votes. 

Right from his inaugural speech, famous for his pledge to pursue a zero tolerance for corruption policy, to his landslide victory in the 2009 presidential race, Bingu pretty much retained the trust of the majority.

Does it mean all is lost for APM in 2019?  No. He stands as much chance to win or lose as do Chakwera, Chilima and Atupele Muluzi. The reason for this is simple, although APM lacks what it takes to retain, let alone build on, a political base, his greatest advantage is in the strength of his major contenders–Chakwera, Chilima and Muluzi.

Let’s say 70-75 percent of the voters want change. That mandate for change will be shared by Chakwera, Chilima and Muluzi. But it will also go to John Chisi of Umodzi Party, Peter Kuwani of MMD and Reverend Kaliya, an independent candidate.

For any of APM’s rivals to carry the day, they’ll need to first win the opposition vote splitting race with more votes than those APM will garner from the camp that wants the status quo to prevail. It seems to me none of the four presidential contenders has a real advantage over the others.  n

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