As former First Lady Callista Mutharika openly thrusts Vice President Saulos Chilima towards a presidential run under the DPP banner at the expense of incumbent Peter Mutharika—who is her brother in-law—one question begs answers.
Could Callista’s move to openly break ranks with the Mutharikas and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party by delving into her Chilima-for-President crusade that is gaining support and possibly turn into a movement—further strain the already frayed relationship between the President and his Vice?
Three political observers The Nation talked to yesterday agreed that Mutharika and Chilima’s relationship is likely to worsen as the President gets uncomfortable with what could be a primary challenge should the Vice President act on the calls to seek the presidency.
Political commentator Raffik Hajat said: “Historically, in Malawi, the Vice President has always been viewed with great suspicion by the President. History shows the Vice President always falls out with the President, probably because they are closer to the President and the heartbeat. I think the presidents are not comfortable with that fact and so anything leaning towards the interests of their deputies to take over cannot be welcomed positively.”
Since the democratic dispensation in 1993, the President and his or her Vice have ended up in frosty relationships.
Former president Bakili Muluzi may have retained Justin Malewezi on the United Democratic Front ticket in 1999 after his first term, but the two fell out at the twilight of the second term when Muluzi wanted to elongate his time as State President, thwarting his deputy’s own ambitions.
Muluzi’s successor, the late Bingu wa Mutharika, never gelled with his vice, Cassim Chilumpha and dropped him for Joyce Banda in his 2009 re-election bid, but the romance did not last as Bingu lost confidence in her while she was Vice President.
When Banda became president after Bingu’s death in 2012, she hand-picked Khumbo Kachali as her Vice President only to dump him for Sosten Gwengwe as her running mate in 2014 with whom she lost to Mutharika.
Despite these past fallouts, at no point did a prominent member of the presidential family and ruling party member lobby for a sitting Vice President to challenge the President serving the first term and showing signs that he would seek re-election.
For Catholic University of Malawi political commentator Nandin Patel, Callista’s endorsement of Chilima signals that the 2019 elections will be highly competitive as seen by the Mutharika-Chilima tension now worsened by the former First Lady’s stance.
“The tension has always been there. As we are heading towards the elections, each political party, as bound by their constitution, will be going for a convention and two or three individuals will compete for particular positions. Here a member of the party is coming out to endorse someone for presidency and it should be taken in that line. In this case, it tells you there will be heavy competition in the 2019 elections build up,” said Patel.
Callista has been making headlines since last week when she openly said her in-law is “aged”; hence, Malawians should not give him their vote and install Chilima as President instead.
A University of Malawi political analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity for what he called personal security reasons, said Callista’s “endorsement of Chilima will definitely worsen the tension between the President and Vice President. We know, presidents in Malawi treat their deputies as threats and now knowing that there is already a team vying for his deputy, I do not think the sitting president will look at the deputy positively and this can affect their working relationship,” said the analyst.
But presidential press secretary and spokesperson Mgeme Kalilani, while stating that the issue is a closed chapter as there is nothing new, says there is no way Callista’s stand can compromise the working relationship between the President and his Vice.
In a telephone interview yesterday evening, Mgeme said: “That issue is closed now, I have done enough interviews and there are a lot of voices circulating on social media so there is nothing new. But no, there is nothing to affect the relationship that is there.”
DPP’s secretary general Greselder Jeffrey declined to comment on what the observers’ suggestions that the issue will further split the President and his Vice.
Efforts to speak to office of the vice president also proved futile as Chilima’s press secretary Pilirani Phiri could not pick up our calls on numerous attempts.