Why is Malawi politics expensive?

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onourable Folks, The Cost of Politics in Malawi survey released this week indicates that aspirants for member of Parliament (MP) positions in the May 21 Tripartite Elections on average each spent K14.8 million. In total all 1 333 aspirants spent a whopping K19.7 billion.

Now, K19.7 billion is not a small amount of money that can just be spent in a three-month-political-frenzy-period called campaign. This is money that can fund roads, schools or health facility projects in the country. Yet, the honourable folks blew it on electioneering.

I must admit that the report has just confirmed what has always been in the public domain for a long time that Malawi politics is expensive.

Folks, in Malawi, since the re-introduction of democracy in 1994, it has not been uncommon to see aspirants donate food items or cash during campaign. Any candidate who chose to run a campaign without spending money did so to their own peril.

Do you remember what Alliance for Democracy (Aford) shadow MP Dan Msowoya said in 2004 when he lost the parliamentary election?

Msowoya told Weekend Nation soon after the 2004 General Elections that during campaign in Mzimba, he used to teach his people their Constitutional rights but his rival just gave people ‘things’ and he lost the polls.

This is just one example on how handouts have made the political ground uneven.  

Since 1994, our politics has been dominated by a culture of handouts, which, to some extent, has also affected the hardworking spirit Malawi has been renowned for.

Is it not our first multiparty president Bakili Muluzi who is accredited for having introduced handouts to Malawi politics? Do you remember the splashing of the K50 notes during United Democratic Front (UDF) rallies?

However, for Muluzi, the self-styled political engineer, handouts were a good gesture meant to share resources, no matter how small, with the poor. His action, as a leader, replicated among MP aspirants. Thus, wearing a garb of generosity, politicians handed out money or anything that would float the boat to voters during campaign.

While the late Bingu wa Mutharika who succeeded Muluzu publicly condemned the handout culture, little was done to stump it out. The vice continued to happen during his reign with aspirants ‘buying’ parliamentary seats.

It is only a few years ago that the country, seeing how handouts have made the political field uneven, came up with the Political Parties Act that bans the practice. But sadly, the survey shows that the spending-spree still happened during the 2019 elections. What this means is that the honourable folks still found their way to navigate around the law. Cunning, isn’t it?

But that does not surprise me because politicians will not stop at anything on their quest to win a seat.

Yet, things were not supposed to be like that because politics is supposed to be a competition of ideas and not spending money during campaign. If you spend obscene amounts of money to woo voters, you have essentially bought that seat.

So, the question is, why is our politics so expensive? Well, honourable folks, it is said that power is a key that can open many doors to success. True or false, but in Malawi, this claim appears to hold water. That is why you see even people who are very rich in society such as business tycoons joining politics. If not for more opportunities once they ascend to echelons of power then why the labour?

This is the antithesis of why people should join politics—which is simply to serve the community or country. In Greece, where democracy started, men offered to hold public positions for the purposes of entirely serving them, without expecting any gains. This is not the case here where an elected person lives in obscene wealth while the voter languishes in the dung of poverty.

For want of more money and opportunities once elected into a political office, you have people who continue to contest despite losing every election cycle. They keep on contesting because they believe they will win one day and go into power. Likewise those who won and lost in the succeeding election do come back to contest. All this speaks volumes of the calibre of politicians that we have. They believe leaving the political arena for others to try their luck is giving away their very beings. So, incumbents, new-comers and habitual failures all play in a league of spending cash to ‘buy’ a seat that promoses them opportunities at the expense of the electorate.

This, folks, is our sad reality. However, as argued already, using money to win political positions is that it deprives the electorate a better candidate with the people’s welfare at heart. It is in the interest of the public to have leaders who are morally upright and capable of representing them and not those who have used cash to win elections.

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