By announcing an alliance between his DPP and UDF yesterday, President Peter Mutharika has set the electoral tone and put pressure on major opposition parties that remain undecided on strategic electoral partnerships.
But the President also faces the question of whether partnering with a United Democratic Front (UDF) unit whose performance in recent elections has been dwindling could give him a competitive edge during the court-ordered fresh presidential elections that Parliament has slated for May 19 2020 subject to presidential assent.
In the discredited 2019 presidential polls, UDF’s Atupele Muluzi got roughly 4.7 percent of the vote, dropping fourth against a third-rate showing of around 13.7 percent he garnered in 2014.
On his part, Mutharika scooped nearly 38.7 percent of the court-annulled votes against the 36.4 percent he garnered in 2014.
Given that this appears to be more of a vote-based alliance than an issue-centred partnership, the DPP-UDF alliance could lock votes from the Eastern and Southern political regions as the two groupings complement voter bases in a country that largely votes along regional and ethnic lines.
But the deal—at least in the statement read during the unveiling of the alliance at Kamuzu Palace in Lilongwe yesterday—did little to explain what common policy agenda, other than winning the election, the parties have agreed to rally voters around.
With strongmen politics at play, in which parties revolve around dominant individuals, this is an alliance of two political dynasties—Mutharikas and Muluzis—who have dominated Malawi politics for 23 of the last 25 years of multiparty democracy’s return.
If last year’s performance is anything to go by and Mutharika leads the DPP-UDF alliance with Muluzi playing a supporting role, the alliance could get up to 43 percent of the votes.
But that presupposes that the rank and file of UDF—from whose rib Bingu wa Mutharika created DPP back in 2005—is happy with their party being used to shore up votes for Mutharika.
Unless the partnership is sold well, according to political scientist Mustafa Hussein of University of Malawi’s Chancellor College, a UDF protest vote could benefit the other two stronger candidates in Malawi Congress Party (MCP) president Lazarus Chakwera and UTM Party president Saulos Chilima.
While stating that it may be too early to comment on whether the alliance will bear desired fruits, Hussein said the success of the two parties to attain a 50 percent-plus-one majority can only be assessed after it becomes clear what other electoral alliances will emerge and also on whether the partnership has broad support in both parties.
He said: “We are yet to see how this will help them. An alliance is formed as a result of thorough consultations with party followers. If that has not been done, then there is a danger some members will defect to other political parties such as UTM and MCP.”
Both DPP and UDF appear aware of the potential shortfall in an era of 50 percent-plus-one being the victory threshold for one to be elected president; hence, they made it clear yesterday that they would be looking for more electoral partners.
In a separate interview, political observer Rafik Hajat stressed the need for clarity on the alliance’s power structure.
He said: “The form of agreement must be extremely clear. There should be a common understanding on the role each political party will play because we have seen political alliances falling apart because they have different agendas.”
During the launch, both UDF national publicity secretary Ken Ndanga and DPP secretary general Grezelder Jeffrey did not mention how the two parties will share power, saying that other emerging issues will be communicated to their supporters in due course.
That said Mutharika now has the first mover advantage, which puts pressure on MCP and UTM to push more aggressively for strategic electoral alliances as the clock ticks.
Long-time political strategist Humphreys Mvula said the formation of the DPP-UDF alliance should be a warning to MCP and UTM to seriously consider forming an alliance if they are to defeat Mutharika during the forthcoming fresh presidential poll.
MCP and UTM have hinted at the possibility of the two parties which fought together to have the Constitutional Court annul the presidential election results ganging up to remove Mutharika from power.
And they might just have the numbers to pull it off if they can agree on who takes front and backseat positions on the ballot papers and provided any of the two parties can accept who has more electoral clout to lead them.
When Chakwera’s 35.41 percent of the votes he got in the annulled 2019 elections is combined with Chilima’s 20.24 percent, it could result in a potential vote win of 55 percent—way past the 50 percent+1 majority required to avoid a runoff.
Again, that assumes things remain constant and there is no disenfranchisement among supporters of Chilima and Chakwera if a preferred candidate is not at the top of the ticket.
During the alliance announcement, Jeffrey and Ndanga read their prepared statements in front of party supporters, saying that the two parties ventured into an electoral alliance because they have common goals and values that will benefit Malawians more, especially women and the youth.
Clad in their dark blue suits and white shirts, Mutharika and Muluzi told party supporters that the alliance is founded on the citizens’ common good. They stressed that the alliance was needed to unite Malawians who face tension and sometimes bitter disagreements.
DPP and UDF have a history of working together.
During Mutharika’s first five-year term, DPP went into a working arrangement with UDF to guarantee votes in the National Assembly and support the government’s legislative agenda. In that period, Muluzi held various ministerial positions, including Health and Population the last time he was in Cabinet just before the May 21 2019 elections.