Updated: Jan 21, 2020
A comment to a Nyasatimes news article that appeared last Friday, 17 May 2019, says, “Atupele likely to lead the pack with about 46% of the presidential vote.”
In an ordinary election, one could dismiss this as aspirational disillusion or an excessive amount of false hope. But the 2019 tri-partite elections, in spite of a few polls indicating a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) win, are quite hard to read even at this late stage. The figure below gives a quick snapshot of the manner in which Malawians who’re currently busy checking if their ID and voter registration cards are in a safe place registered across the country.
Indeed, no one district could pull an impressive turnout than Lilongwe and not many are able to comprehend what happened in Blantyre.
The past five years have altered the political landscape in a manner that expands the competitive space on which the four major competitors – Chakwera, Chilima, Muluzi and Mutharika – will bet their luck. The entry of UTM as a major force has doused the potential majority that either the DPP or the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), or the United Democratic Front (UDF), for that matter, would have had (see our article on this here). It has also shifted the voting dynamics on many levels.
A notable disruption of the 2019 cohort affects the Regional lines that have shape election results in Malawi. We awaken tomorrow to choose among four candidates, two from the South, two from the Center. This website looked at proportions of registered voters by comparing how the three administrative Regions fare with respect to their populations. As the figure below demonstrates, the North, also expected to be the likely swing Region where the presidential candidate with the largest numbers would likely lead the election, registered the most of its voters.
Across the board, however, more registered voters would have been most crucial to these elections due to the fact that, with an average of 39% of the population expected to turn out and vote tomorrow, it will be the minority determining the future of the country. Considering that three large parties will compete (throw in UDF to make a fourth, if you like), an even smaller portion of the country will be electing a leader expected to represent the complex nature of our tiny country on top of having to manage 17.5 million people. But perhaps the soothing news is the evenness of the registrations, which, despite the disappointments in some districts like Blantyre, we found that there is a 39% average spread across districts.
And although one would have hoped that the North would tip the election in favor of the candidate with the best manifesto, as it’s done in some past elections, all parties have shared issue-based campaign messages whose idealism for development rings music to the voter’s ears. If only promises were half the solution. As a result, candidates are viciously exploiting their best alliances with the North, with Chakwera and Chilima amplifying their marital connections, Muluzi waving Mwenifumbo’s face all over the North, and Mutharika planting his crows in the shapes of Vuwa Kaunda and others.
The Center is calmer in that case, with the major battle lines drawn between Chakwera and Chilima. Unfortunately for Mr. Mutharika, Chimulirenji’s addition is still not blowing enough steam to push the piston for the DPP.
The South, however, is as interesting as it splits the vote interestingly. Chakwera’s alliances seem to be the most aggressive among all parties, as he potentially kills two birds with a single Sidik Mia who is designed to rally the Lower Shire behind tambala wakuda (the black cock) and disturb the loyalties of the Muslim communities of the Eastern Region which are perceived (perhaps wrongly) to favor an Islamic candidate like Muluzi. However, this remains hypothetical if one were to weigh the misgivings of the Muslim community about Mr. Mia’s boss, who, in 2005, is believed to have asked President Bingu wa Mutharika to make Malawi a Christian state. And to bolster his Eastern Region hold, the good Reverend has succumbed to getting in bed with the devil himself by taking Joyce Banda, an arc-opponent he has lambasted for corruption in the recent past, under his wing. Whether the young Muluzi himself has enough grip on the Eastern Region in the presence of all these forces working in his turf is indeterminate.
But ‘indeterminate’ seems to be the new name of Mr. Mutharika’s fate tomorrow as well. Mr. Mia’s presence on the MCP ticket may disrupt the DPP hold on the Lower Shire, which leaned towards the DPP in the last two elections. And the youthful Mr. Muluzi, his health Minister until last week, still menaces Mr. Mutharika’s chances simply by opting to join the race for the presidency and in turn promising nothing but a split of the vote. Furthermore, although the Northern Region can be an important tipping point, the intensive campaigns by the MCP and UTM will surely slice the North up like a cake. As a matter of fact, it is this unpredictability of the Northern vote that further compromises Mr. Mutharika’s prospects for a clear victory. For those that have been reading from us consistently, our article of 7 January 2019 assures that perhaps the one thing most predictable is that the perceived support displayed at Party rallies is no measure for a predictable win for any of the candidates in 2019.
There are predictions that have also been made on account of the power of the rural vote. Indeed, Malawi remains extremely a rural country, with the 2018 national census showing that people in rural areas make 84% of the total population (take a look at the figure below).
In light of such configuration, the DPP and MCP have received favorable odds when predicting what happens tomorrow because of their established rural Party structures. By August 2018, two months after its birth, the argument that a certain end of the UTM was neigh, which was yet to take its baby steps to rural Malawi, sounded plausible. Today, of course, the reality is that the baby’s legs grew faster than the DPP and MCP would have liked and that the UTM has trodden in all corners of the country with an impressive resolve.
If the youth card will be the game changer for these elections, then much is gained for the UTM whose brand has preyed on the youthful nature of its members ever since Callista Mutharika made that striking contrast between her brother-in-law and his Vice President. The Malawi Electoral Commission (EC) estimates that 3.7 million of the 6.85 million registered voters in tomorrow’s elections comprise the youth. Should such a scenario materialize, it would perhaps be the first time a demographic factor will have played a major role in Malawi’s democratic history by transcending the traditional roles played by ethnicity and regionalism. If the youth card does usher in a new government into Capital Hill tomorrow, it will have changed the nature of our democracy for a long time to come.
Without a doubt, the one thing that all Parties agree on is the prevalence of corruption. While blaming the Joyce Banda administration, even Mr. Mutharika repeatedly admits its existence. In 2014, he campaigned on the singular promise to root the vice out of all parts of his government. Tomorrow, he leaves office or starts the next one with corruption itself as real as a pair of wrangler jeans and the fight he has fought against it reduced to lip service. Likewise, as Mrs. Banda points fingers to the first DPP administration – which she once happily served to a point of qualifying her for the vice presidency in 2009 – she has succeeded to refocus Reverend Chakwera’s conscience away from the ravaging corruption that she let take place under her nose. And, to a point, people have been right to point fingers at Messrs. Chilima and Muluzi for serving a government they are keen to call corrupt while mustering the ability to turn towards the bank to draw a salary the same government credits their accounts. For Mr. Muluzi, corruption has even failed to take center stage in his campaign messaging. He has proclaimed “A New Beginning” more than speak of his strategy to address graft, some which has found green grass in the health Ministry where he served until last week as its Minister.
So, finally, tomorrow Malawi votes.
Every Party wants to have us convinced they will be relocating from their current occupations to Capital Hill. Their leader, to Kamuzu Palace. But despite the swings and excitements we’ve been accustomed to in most likely the most fiery competition we’ve ever had, two things are certain: (1) this campaign has shifted the frontiers of campaign messaging positively; and (2) much to everyone’s chagrin, that we’re still not really certain how tomorrow and its aftermath unfold.
May God, Allah, or whatever the diverse parts of our population bows to, be the force for peace and harmony in the midst our differences.