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Between a Rock and a Hard Place: General Elections in Malawi Fifty Years After Independence


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Living in Malawi’s sprawling capital of Lilongwe as an expat without access to a car is widely considered to be highly uncomfortable. Exactly two weeks before the general elections on 20 May, I boarded yet another minibus that would take me from the chaotic, lively “Old Town” with its local markets, screaming street sellers and rush hour traffic, to the static, international “City Centre”, with its embassies, expat 4-wheel drives and take-away coffees. In a city that is relatively-speaking one of the most expensive to get around, most Malawians, with the exception of the very poor and the very rich, rely on the minibus to take them places. Together with Malawians’ inclination to socialize with total strangers, riding minibuses is an excellent way to learn about Malawi, Malawians and with the general elections around the corner, Malawian politics.

Malawi is one of the economically poorest countries in the world, receiving around 40% of its budget through support from international donors, but one of the richest countries socially. It is little wonder that the country is dubbed “The Warm Heart of Africa”, in reference to its the warmth of its people and its relative political stability since the country gained its independence 50 years ago. The tripartite elections of May 20 come at a critical time, when international donors have lost their trust in the ruling government led by President Joyce Banda of the People’s Party (PP) after the unfolding of a big corruption scandal in late 2013 that involved the fraud and theft of at least 30 million US Dollars in just 6 months, and is now widely known as “Cashgate”. Longtime development partners, the UK and Germany, announced in late April that their respective countries will no longer support Malawi through direct budgetary support.

As Malawian political commentator the Steve Sharra notes: “there seem to be two Joyce Bandas: the Joyce Banda causing so much debate and controversy within Malawi, and the Joyce Banda who has won the hearts of the rest of the world.” Despite the Cashgate scandal and retracting donors, President Banda remains an international media favorite due to the fact that she is one of the two female leaders on the African continent, alongside Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of the West African state of Liberia. Banda receives international praise for her perceived strides in the advancement of women in Malawi. Albeit important in a country where 1 in 36 women die due to childbirth injuries, Banda’s focus has been almost solely on maternal health. In a society that faces high levels of discrimination against women, in which more than half of its girls are married before they are 18, and where domestic violence and other forms of gender based violence soar, Malawi’s women seem to need more.

In her own country, President Banda is highly unpopular among human rights advocates and the broader population alike. Amidst international praise for Banda’s gender program, womans’ and human rights activists point to the international praise of Banda’s gender program and the reality on the ground: Banda’s lack of action against child marriage and her glorification of marriage as the pinnacle of womanhood. The conflicts between President Banda and human rights activists came to a head in July 2013 when Banda, herself remarried after an abusive first marriage, publicly criticized the ‘questionable’ marital status of some of the Malawian female activists while giving marital advice to Malawian women not to be rude to their husbands. In August 2013, activists Seodi White and Jessie Kabwila were shushed by government officials at a national gender conference after criticizing the idea that Malawian women should vote for Banda simply because she is a woman.

Amongst the general Malawian population, and especially in the cities, Banda is highly unpopular. Ordinary Malawians have been hit hard by the IMF-steered economic choices President Banda has made over the past two years, and those that have access to political news through the newspaper and radio news have seen the President splurge government money on expensive trips abroad. Whilst Banda once again tries to please the international donor community- in the minibus referred to simply as “azungu” (white men)- she further estranges herself from ordinary Malawians.

President Banda is doing all that she can to improve her image in Malawi. Knowing that her constituency does not live in Lilongwe or Blantyre, she is stuck to handing out maize in the rural areas of the country. With over 80% of the population living in the off-grid rural areas, short of access to information through newspapers and radio, the maize handouts are said to make the poorest feel recognized by their President. The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) recently conducted a survey from which was concluded that food security, hunger, economic stabilization and fertilizer subsidies are indeed the key points for most Malawians in the 2014 elections. Banda has been so engaged in the rural areas that she has excused herself for the televised presidential debates. Her main competitor Peter Mutharika of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) also did not bother to participate in the debates.

Despite the lack of credible polls, the consensus is that there are four serious contenders for the Presidency; incumbent President Banda, Peter Mutharika of the DPP, Atupele Muluzi of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and Lazerus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP). Three out of four of these contenders have been associated with corruption scandals. Atupele Muluzi will have a difficult time shrudding off the image of his father, former President Bakili Muluzi who was previously arrested and tried on fraud and corruption charges, while Peter Mutharika’s brother former President Bingu Wa Mutharika is said to have turned a blind eye to the beginning of the current Cashgate scandal. MCP’s former Malawi Assemblies of God President Reverend Chakwera may not be implicated in any corruption scandal, but he does carry the heavy weight of his party’s history with him, as former dictator Hastings Kamuzu Banda ruled the country for 30 years under the MCP banner.

With only a few days left until the elections, realizing the lack of any fresh and visionary competition to Banda’s rule, it seems that Malawi has come down from its dream of starting afresh after 50 years of independence and corruptible leaders. On top of that, in Malawi the incumbency bias is high; no sitting President has ever lost an election. Being stuck between a rock and a hard place, Malawi is likely to keep President Banda in power.

At least 7 million Malawians are expected to cast their vote during the 20 May tripartite elections with polls for parliament and local government also on the ballot.

This article is partly based on interviews in the capital of Lilongwe.

Written by Suzanne van Hooff. Suzanne currently works at an international NGO in Lilongwe, Malawi. Her professional interests include international security, conflict and post-conflict politics, transitional justice, international human rights and gender.

Written by Suzanne van Hooff and published on 13-May-2014




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