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A Tip for 2019: Beware the Illusion of Big Numbers!

Updated: Jan 21, 2020

Pic by Malawi Watch Dog

Happy New Year to all!

The long-awaited 2019 is upon us. Nothing known today will be worth reckoning more than an election whose accurate prediction we remain in the dark about, beyond the fact that there seem to be three major forerunners: the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and the United Transformation Movement (UTM) Party. This is by no means put in order of preference, nor by fame nor favorability. The upcoming elections are, at this moment, so unpredictable that we're safe with a simple alphabetical order. DPP, MCP, UTM.

However, one thing is now apparent in our country. Malawians seem to have grown a liking for gatherings, whether they are in full accord with the narrative a political rally shares or not. They have become more curious with the years and would avail themselves to hear anything that talks into a microphone in self proclamation of being potential ballot material in an election believed to be most unpredictable in our history. So, despite the conspicuity of one-of-three victors of the May (Presidential) election today, even Joyce Banda’s rallies will continue to attract crowds that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) would cringe at the very unlikely possibility of an electoral upset by her.

Yet, political parties in Malawi are upbeat about crowd size as a metric of likeability. They are full of celebration of huge crowds, a factor usually conflated with party muscle. They’ve mastered the art of appreciation of a large patronage that they howl so loud about their popularity. On the contrary, gauging by the recent heavy participation characterizing political rallies that all our major parties share (except for Tay Grin’s staged shows that have at times been used to disturb the avalanche of patrons of UTM Party), this website is convinced our political parties may be leaning on this illusion a bit excessively.

Democracy-era Malawians want to hear. They want to see. Most of all, the appetite to share in on the experience has grown with the surge of information in an age where digital platforms are bursting with selfies and satirical audio clips. Where their future is at stake, the capture of political messaging that is diffused directly from the horse’s mouth cannot be best mimicked by a televised screening. And, indeed, if one nurtures an adoration for the allure of miyambi yatsopano as some political parties have mastered lately, finding oneself on the rally grounds can easily be one’s best option.

This should not dupe political parties into adopting rally crowds as credible polls for what is to come. The likelihood, today, that a major opponent may be buzzing with excited crowds at their rallies is just as high, even when the other’s event is in relatively short vicinity, spatially or temporally.

Speaking of excitement, the flavor of the hype, usually infused with a good dose of castigation of one’s opponents, has lately become a crowd puller. Given the chance, it’s tempting to see Nicholas Dausi make a clown of himself in person. And even as one hopes our politics ought to be maturing, the demeanors of Patricia Kaliati, Charles Mchacha or even the mainly DPP-oriented scorns of Lazarus Chakwera himself remain a formidable political ingredient to Party events. The growing addition of live music to rallies – a slight show of desperation, in our view – is certainly welcome entertainment. Malawi’s musicians are ablaze with songs composed with words that venerate political figures even if it’s a good lie.

All this rumbling is not meant to reduce huge crowds to a total illusion. Consistent showings of supporters at one’s events can comprise a strong signal of potential, but one whose subtleties must be addressed cautiously before one is uneducatedly forced into a miscalculation. It requires a candid and informed introspection of whether one’s messages are crafted in the right measure into what the large public gatherings of diverse characteristics really want to hear. In our small country, the mere complexity of regional divergence can be too strong to ignore. Add the mosaic of ethnicities to that, and one is thrown overboard and may be incapable of convincing the electorate to a sweeping victory. It is why parties like AFORD can manage to hold a seat in parliament.

Even with a great start, parties like UTM must take great caution of the seemingly excited crowds at their rallies. A good number of the attendants are there to escape the boredom of the home; others already know who they will vote for, and UTM may not be the choice; others may not be registered to vote yet muster the energy to receive and dance in UTM regalia. The same individuals will undoubtedly do the same at DPP and/or MCP events.

Rather, political parties in Malawi must rely less on crowds and more on demonstrating the ability to bring something genuinely new, either in their composition or their rhetoric. In our last article of 2018, we commended – like everyone else – the misfortune that landed on George Saonda for wanting to keep our politics in the past. This has only shown that credibility and maturity, while bought at an expensive price, is a welcome virtue in our society. So, UTM must continue with a streak that stands above conventional wisdom to pull along. Among other things.

But opposition parties must go the extra mile to not just bring issues that Malawians really care about but must demonstrate seriousness and capability to solve our current development stalemate. Even where the issues are quite common to all parties, Malawians must be given the opportunity to choose who they believe can bring the change they are looking for.

For parties such as MCP and UTM, they must work on an important weakness of the DPP, which should be echoed even at the heart of DPP strongholds. The DPP cannot safely claim it will bring any change to Malawi since, being in government, it's easy to see their many failures. It's tough as hell for DPP to convince Malawians of anything better when they've presided over a dilapidation of values, economy and society, evidence which the MCP and UTM should continue to bring to the fore. So far, only the UTM has managed to apply pressure that subdues the DPP. In light of this opportunity, it is disappointing for Malawians that Atupele Muluzi will run for the presidency while having stayed mum when the faults of the DPP government that pays his salary lie before his eyes.

And for MCP, which is not to be underrated (not yet, at least for now), needs to learn to try very hard to take deliberate action that will help it to rid itself of the shame in its primary elections. The party’s biggest predicament now rests in Chakwera’s selection of a proper running mate, as Sidik Mia may no longer be the candidate of choice in a political landscape where UTM is a force to reckon with.


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