Malawi Opposition Parties’ Union Imperative

Saulos Chilima and Lazarus CHakwera, When MCP needed UTM

By Tom Likambale

An Afrobarometer poll published on August 30th 2022 indicates a serious erosion in support for the MCP-led Tonse Alliance government of President Lazarus Chakwera since its election in 2020. Among other things the poll found that 65% of Malawians thought the government’s performance to be worse than that of the previous DPP government of Professor Arthur Peter Mutharika. The Chakwera-Chilima ticket beat the Mutharika-Muluzi ticket by about 20 percentage points in 2020. This survey reveals an almost complete reversal in favorability between Mutharika and Chakwera. More than 84% of respondents in the poll disapproved of the current government’s management of the economy and fully 88.6% opined that the country was headed in the wrong direction under President Chakwera.

The public’s perception has likely worsened since February when this poll was conducted as there have been many new corruption scandals. Indeed as recently as October 10th. 2022, Catholic bishops highlighted the failures of the government in a pastoral statement. They eloquently condemned the current government’s corruption, defective service delivery, institutional failures, inconsistent application of austerity measures, bleak prospects for the oncoming agricultural season, nepotism and cronyism.

Businesses, especially mom-and-pop providers, are struggling and many have closed shop because of the forex shortage, erratic power supply and fuel scarcity. Food prices, including for the staples maize and rice, continue to skyrocket and there is concern there might be starvation in the coming lean months of December, January and February. There is also real fear that there might not be adequate farm input subsidies for poor farmers in the coming growing season because of the forex shortage and high level corruption. Unemployment, especially among the youth, is sky high and this carries the real risk of mass unrest soon. In short, our economy is being eviscerated because of corruption and incompetence in government.

Various groups have taken to the streets to protest. Others are planning new, countrywide demonstrations. There is only one problem with demos. If those organized by the HRDC in 2019-2020 are anything to go by, ours can easily turn violent resulting in loss of life, injury, burglary and massive property damage. Considering the state of the economy as it is now, this option could make matters worse. Of course, the right to demonstrate peacefully and unarmed is constitutional. However, care should be exercised to ensure that the atrocities we saw during the HRDC demos in 2019-2020 do not repeat themselves.

The Election of 2025

Despite these failures of the MCP-led administration, the response from the opposition has so far not yielded much fruit. The main opposition parties, UDF and DPP, have yet to hold conventions to decide their respective leaders and presidential candidates for 2025. This partly explains why they have not been able to confront the government more effectively. The opposition should acquit itself with more urgency recognising the seriousness of our situation and the vast advantages the governing party has in preparing for the next election.

For starters, the MCP has maintained a governing alliance with eight other political parties. Despite some turbulence arising from discontent specifically from the UTM of Vice President Saulos Klaus Chilima, the alliance has held together so far. The UTM has seemingly chosen to grumble while inside the alliance rather than bail. This, of course, gives an advantage to the MCP for 2025.

In addition, there are no real signs that the MCP has lost its base of support in the central region. Previous election cycles in Malawi have clearly demonstrated that the success of a major party in the presidential race relies, to a large part, on the loyalty of its regional base of support. To the extent that the MCP appears to have kept the loyalty of its central region base despite glaring blunders in government, the odds of MCP winning in 2025 remain good.

In any event, the MCP will have the advantage of incumbency which it will undoubtedly wield to help it win. In sum, if the MCP maintains its alliance with eight other parties; if the central region’s support of the MCP stays steadfast, and if the MCP uses its position as a ruling party to deploy government largesse as a campaign tool – we should not be surprised to wake up to the beginning of a second consecutive Chakwera term sometime in 2025.

Opposition Parties, Unite!

This country is in the grip of an economic emergency and the regime has not found effective solutions. If our economic trajectory is to change, and there is no sign that it will, the opposition must refrain from doing political business as usual. It should unite to form a more effective bloc and gear to replace the MCP-led alliance in 2025. Just as the country united in opposition to replace an obdurate MCP dictatorship in 1992/93/94; the time has come again to unite and help Malawi change course. Nothing short of an opposition electoral alliance or union can defeat the Tonse Alliance.

Both the UDF and DPP have their strongholds in the south. The electoral clout of that region lies in unifying behind one, not more, political parties. Any hope of wresting power from the Tonse Alliance in the next election must include a reunification of the UDF and the DPP to consolidate the southern vote. An added advantage would come from the joining of other parties coupled with an effective national campaign. It is of utmost importance that any opposition to Tonse be seen as national, rather than regional. Additionally, the new 50%+1 majority threshold for determining a winner in the presidential race makes it even harder for a single party to win alone against the entrenched MCP and its allies. Although it may be difficult to unify the opposition in this way, it is imperative to do so if we really want things to change for the better. Thus it is time for various political groups to patriotically come together as happened in 1992/93/94.

The current government shows no sign of changing course and if the opposition fails to form an electoral alliance, each alone will not have a chance against the MCP and its allies in 2025. The UDF is basically a rump of the DPP. These were one party until a bitter split in 2005. Enough time has passed since then for cooler heads to prevail. Let us bury the hatchet. Already, the then UDF leader Atupele Muluzi stood as a running mate to DPP’s Professor Arthur Peter Mutharika on the presidential ballot in the 2020 election. It is time to make common cause together again. Malawi, which is today facing a clear and present danger of economic and governance collapse, demands it.

About the author: Tom Likambale is from Balaka Township and a supporter of the United Democratic Front (UDF) Party.

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