There are three elements that form the basic fabric of Malawian politics since the first democratic elections of 1994. The first one is ‘defections;’ where politicians jump from one party to another in a clear state of confusion and opportunism. The second is ‘factionalism’ which leads to breakaways and formation of new parties out of party leadership’ succession struggles. The last one is ‘electoral alliances’ and this is what I want to talk about following the trending news about a possible electoral bloc between MCP, UTM and PP.
There have been electoral alliances among political parties for as long as there has been multiparty democracy in Malawi. But much as parties have always succeeded to form electoral alliances to consolidate votes since the MCP and AFORD alliance during the 1999 General Elections, and later the UDF and AFORD alliance and the Mgwirizano coalition both in the run-up to 2004 General Elections, there are also electoral alliances that failed to materialize. For example, the AFORD and UDF expected electoral alliance in 1994 failed and NDA refused to be part of the Mgwirizano Coalition in the run-up to the 2004 Elections. The expected MCP, UTM and PP electoral bloc towards the 2019 elections is likely to fall into the latter category of electoral alliances that failed to materialize.
In order to understand why the alliance, especially between UTM and MCP cannot work, we need to first of all understand the circumstances and conditions upon which previous electoral alliances worked or failed to work. Regardless of political dynamics and differences in the political terrain, factors that determine a workable and an impossible electoral alliance remain the same.
In the run-up to the first general elections of 1994, UDF and AFORD were the major contesting parties against the MCP administration. UDF had tried to convince AFORD to form an electoral alliance to easily defeat MCP and Dr. Banda. But the alliance talks died in infancy because apart from issues of distrust between members of UDF and AFORD, both Muluzi and Chihana considered themselves to be heavy weights and they needed the Presidency so badly that none of them could surrender the opportunity to the other. But during the elections that followed in 1999, Chihana agreed to an electoral alliance with Gwanda Chakuamba of MCP. He proudly said “Gwanda tsogola ine pambuyo” because the 1994 Elections had taught him a tough lesson that he was not as strong a Presidential candidate as he had thought he was. In fact, from this time, Chihana never contested for the Presidency again. After the 1999 alliance with MCP, he sold AFORD to another electoral alliance with UDF during the 2004 Elections where he was not even given the running-mate position. But he did not care because the ego and self-confidence he had prior to 1994 Elections had died as reality sunk into his soul.
Another excellent example is Brown Mpinganjira and his NDA party. Mpinganjira was one of the founding members of UDF and Cabinet Minister in the Muluzi administration. He began to position himself to takeover leadership of UDF after Muluzi. As a result, he stood against President Muluzi’s ambition to extend his presidency through the Third Term Bill in 2000. He was dismissed from the cabinet and he formed his NDA to challenge UDF at the 2004 Elections. His NDA became the most popular party in the run-up to 2004 elections. Multitudes of countless people attended political rallies of NDA. This popularity gave Mpinganjira and his NDA supporters some confidence that they were capable of winning elections. As a result, when the churches appealed to NDA and requested Mpinganjira to get into an alliance with other parties in the Mgwirizano Coalition, Mpinganjira refused.
Mpinganjira thought that if he joined the Mgwirizano coalition, then he would lose his opportunity to become President because Gwanda Chakuamba of RP was the candidate for the coalition. But when the elections were over, Mpinganjira lost and so did Chakuamba. Upon losing, Mpinganjira humbled himself. He took his NDA and formed a political alliance with the UDF government where his NDA quickly faded into oblivion.
From the given background of our democracy, we can see that in Malawi, electoral alliances are impossible when all candidates think that they are heavy weights and desperately need the Presidency. Electoral alliances only work when at least one candidate is willing to give in to the others because he realizes that he cannot win alone. Just like Muluzi and Chihana in 1994, Vice President Saulos Chilima and Leader of Opposition Lazarus Chakwera are not the kind of politicians who are ready to pave way for each other and surrender their ambitions of becoming President.
According to the 2018 amendment of the MCP Constitution, Chakwera knows that unless he wins the 2019 Elections, this is his last chance to be presidential candidate. He cannot surrender his only last chance to Chilima who is a candidate of another party which is even weaker than MCP. Chakwera is aware that unlike UTM which enjoys popularity, MCP has the structures and a solid stronghold of voters which came close to making him President in the 2014 Elections. The only reason Chakwera would want an alliance with UTM is to avoid the splitting of votes in the center and get the swinging votes from UTM. But that is not good enough to make him surrender his candidacy to Chilima and betray MCP supporters who want their party to rule again.
As we have noticed from previous electoral alliances, the stronger party in the alliance produces the Presidential candidate while the weaker ones get the running mate or ministerial posts. But Chilima would not accept to be running to Chakwera. He is already Vice President in the DPP administration and left to form UTM after failing to overthrow APM to take over the Presidency in the May 2019 Elections. Chilima formed UTM because he wants nothing less than the Presidency. We must look at him like the Brown Mpinganjira of the most popular NDA in 2004 who was deceived by the popularity of his party and the large crowds that attended his rallies to think that he could go solo and win elections. Chilima is overwhelmed by that illusion now.
The only party that will be flexible enough to get into an alliance with MCP or UTM is PP. The history of alliances has shown that smaller parties that don’t stand a chance of winning alone easily get into electoral alliances. That is why PETRA, PPM, MAFUNDE and MGODE easily partnered with RP for the Gwirizano Coalition. PP came third in 2014 when they were in government. Joyce Banda has done nothing, between 2014 and now, that can push PP from the third position to beat UTM, MCP and DPP in May 2019 Elections. As a result, JB is likely to get a deal with MCP or UTM or even DPP. She might definitely not want to be running mate, but security of interests for herself and her son in the next government.