Malawians had a feel for the first time of a high-profile election debate when Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS) brought together presidential running mates from Malawi Congress Party (MCP), United Democratic Front (UDF), People’s Party (PP) and Democratic People’s Party (DPP) to a roundtable discussion.
This was a good start and Zodiak should be commended for this initiative which should have been on Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC). But the public media is dysfunctional.
Election debates are an important element of democracy because they afford the electorate an opportunity to make an informed decision about which individuals or political party to vote for. However, being the first debate involving running mates, teething problems are expected. Certain things could have been better from the media side. Hence, there is room for improvement, especially when it comes to framing of questions. This is important to avoid losing focus or asking ‘wrong’ questions.
The media should determine beforehand whether candidates are being invited as individuals or representing their parties. For the presidential candidates, it’s clear that it is individuals. For the running mates, it may not be clear because they walk in the shadow of the president. Their success hinges on the success of the president.
It is crucial, therefore, that the media should ask candidates questions based on their party’s manifestos (including those standing as MPs unless they are independent members). Manifestos contain all the policies that a political party wants to implement for citizens.
This entails doing research by reading a party’s manifesto and pulling out issues on which to base questions. Citizens are yearning for leaders who can lead them to prosperity. Malawi has a sad history of failed leaders since the democratic elections in 1994. We have seen how some top brass UDF, DPP and PP leaders have looted public resources and enriched themselves.
Some of these failed leaders or their offshoots want to crawl back to the corridors of power with promises of improving the lives of Malawians. You wonder what new things they will bring when all they achieved was to destroy the economy, abuse human rights, sponsor State terrorism through their youth wings and enrich themselves, their families, friends and kinsmen.
The media can play a critical role in helping Malawians to make informed choices. These debates should be done weekly and one sector should be discussed per week. Take the economic sector as an example. The issue should be discussed in detail. All political parties should outline the type of economic policies they will purse. Is it capitalism, socialism or mixed economy? How will political parties tackle the growing poverty and inequality? How will parties help small and medium enterprises access financial resources in view of mainstream banking reluctance to lend to this sector?
Unemployment and lack of service delivery are huge issues. How will political parties create employment and how many jobs are they going to create in two years, three years etc? We know that city assemblies and many government companies are dysfunctional. How will political parties ensure these institutions are revitalised so that citizens get the much-needed services such as water, housing, electricity and sanitation?
In the mining sector, parties should be clear about how Malawians are going to benefit from the mineral wealth. Are they going to take a background role and leave minerals to be plundered by foreign companies or are they going to be active participants? In the tourism sector, political parties should be asked what plans they have to improve tourism sector and how they will do it. The constitution is a good document for governance questions. Parties need to be asked how they will enhance not only civil and political rights, but also social and economic rights. Parties should be clear-cut on how they are going to improve the lives of Malawians. Just saying we will improve the lives of the citizens without giving details of how they are going to do it is short-changing the electorate. We also need time frames and clear deliverables.
Of course, having a good manifesto is not a guarantee that a political party will deliver. Malawi is not short of good policies which are gathering dust on the shelves at the seat of government at Capital Hill. Much depends on political will to fulfill the promises. However, media can ask probing questions that can give a realistic view of which political party or leader can govern better than the rest. Some leaders or parties are promising things that cannot be achieved or that they have failed to achieve when they were in office. 2014 should be a year for Malawians do away with mediocre leadership.