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Honor Thy Vice President: A Governance Lesson for Malawi’s Democracy

Updated: Jul 20, 2020

Pic by Malawi Daily Telegraph
Chakwera (l) and Chilima (r) of Tonse Alliance took oath of office on Sunday, 27 June 2020

In commemoration of Malawi's 56th Independence Day

No Vice President in democratic Malawi has run the full course of their term without falling out with their boss in spite of running an election and winning together. The Vice Presidency has frequently been a ceremonial position that a few times has been sidelined by powerful hopefuls like Atupele Muluzi. Mr. Muluzi, while a Minister in the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government of Peter Mutharika, managed to attract to himself presidential accolades in the run up to the 2020 Fresh Presidential Election (FPE) that seemed to upend Saulos Chilima’s worth by a government which the former was never voted into. Mr. Chilima’s fate, sealed during the first Presidential term of Peter Mutharika for the DPP’s trepidation in the young man’s growing success when he took over public sector reforms, was neither new nor unexpected.

There’s every reason to suspect history has a chance to predict the future one more time. It won’t, then, be a farfetched idea that Malawi Congress Party (MCP) diehards could soon entitle themselves to politick the consolidation of power in order to fashion opportunities for leadership roles constrained by joint leadership under the Tonse Alliance. It won’t be unnatural for them to want even a smidge of additional power. The biggest and perhaps sharpest thorn in the flesh is a UTM that has a Vice President who, as with the DPP government six years earlier, has the keys to public sector reform and a mouth that knows how to shout out loud.

As much as it’s in Malawians’ best interest that the Tonse Alliance works out during its first term, to some, the distant horizon is filled with almost pessimistic expectation on the marriage lasting. And just as Vice Presidencies in Malawi have the historical tendency to sublime into oblivion, political alliances have a short shelf life, casting a heavy shadow on expectations of MCP and UTM always staying in tune on policy, tack and even principle as we advance towards the next vote.

Its longer-term survival, however, will bank on the strength it has shown in the FPE 2020 by pulling an undoubted victory that ousted an adamant DPP government which was relentless at circumventing the rule of law and common sense to retain power. Undoubtedly, it was Mr. Chilima’s charisma and unique oratory that probably played the strongest elements in pushing President Lazarus Chakwera to the high office, more than any other alliance member ever could do (hello People’s Party, Petra, etc.!) The Alliance, including MCP, will have to remember these subtleties as 2024 edges closer, which brings into question an important issue: the future of Malawi’s governance in a Tonse Alliance era.

Without thinking about this future now, Malawi will easily spiral into inter-Party bickering, finger pointing and name-calling, all which may come at the expense of the Malawians who’ve invested much hope in bringing forth a new government. UTM must negotiate the future not as a small party of less than a handful of Parliamentarians, as Malawians’ view of them has certainly positively shifted between May 2019 and June 2020. MCP must recognize this fact. Both must make the best of the little time in which to think of these issues before campaign season starts, if Parties as DPP and Mr. Muluzi’s United Democratic Front (UDF) will be kept at bay.

A few scenarios are on the table for the two parties. In the first, Mr. Chilima could run as Tonse Alliance’s torchbearer in next election or the one after. This depends on Mr. Chakwera’s ability to not to have grown too bigheaded by the time we vote next, which is possible if his current Presidency is successful. Creating a path for his Vice President to run – assuming the Veep will still be looking to run for office then – would nonetheless gain him the credibility of a democrat.

But in a second scenario, MCP and UTM could revert to rivalry as early as 2024, in which case Malawi returns to cutthroat, nasty campaigning by two government insiders who may have a lot to say about each other’s style and fitness. Although it offers a wider choice for Malawians, two influential figures bent on outwitting each other could result in eroding the goodwill that voted them into government in the first place. This could make way for another Party to rise or lead to a reconfiguration of the Alliances that could bring back some of the bad apples we have managed to get rid of this time.

Finally, we cannot rule out a continued amalgamation of the Tonse Alliance operating as one party. Would they form a quasi-solid structure that operates as two interdependent parts? Or would one be absorbed into the other? The latter would be a tall order for UTM, which must first build infallible structures to better negotiate the terms. The platform on which the negotiations for an Alliance will take place next will be very different from the one on which they signed off in March 2020. So, UTM must strive to win as many Parliamentary by-elections as they can between now and 2024, ensure they have solid structures at the grassroots and a Party following that will still believe in its leaders should none have the good sense to migrate to MCP.

However, a persistent Tonse Alliance could easily be the reversion to the one-Party State Malawi voted against in the referendum of 1993. Because, while our lens zoom in on the relations between MCP and UTM, a strong alliance will have the power to overcome the survival of DPP and UDF, whether individually or as an Alliance.

For once, the Executive Branch of the Malawi Government needs to learn to glorify the office of the Vice President with substance and the political podium for him to execute himself with enough authority. Our lesson from Joyce Banda’s ascendancy shows that a Veep can rise even when the odds seem impossible. And that from the first DPP term of Peter Mutharika’s regime is how, among other factors of course, sidelining a Vice President could lead to the downfall of a government.




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