The dawn of democracy in 1993 promised more than what has been achieved so far. It was a moment of anticipation for change in the management and running of political parties as it marked a graduation from an era where political party members’ wishes mattered less than those of the leader.
During the one-party era led by the late Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda, despite having an almost majority following, records indicate that the president was so powerful that his position was final and everyone had to accept. No one could protest or express a contrary view to that of the leader.
It was through a referendum that Malawians opted for multiparty democracy. The dream was that intraparty democracy would be embraced. But 22 years down the line, the story on the slate raises questions whether there is, indeed, intraparty democracy in the country’s political parties.
Records are clear that some political party members have seen the axe for expressing views perceived to be contrary to those of their leaders.
So fresh is the suspension of Reverend Peter Kaleso, People’s Party (PP) administrative secretary. Kaleso told The Nation of September 2 2015 that he was suspended and summoned for hearing for consulting northern provincial chairperson Mzomera Ngwira on replacing Joyce Banda who has been away since losing the May 20 Tripartite Elections. But Kaleso insists that what he did was within his job description.
Recently, we saw the demotion of Felix Jumbe from the position of campaign director in the Malawi Congress Party (MCP). Reports indicate that he is a victim of being vocal and outspoken. Jumbe also alleges that his decision not to endorse the party’s leader Lazarus Chakwera as president during one national executive committee (NEC) meeting cost him the demotion.
Dr Boniface Dulani, lecturer and faculty coordinator for post graduate programmes in the department of political and administrative studies at Chancellor College, is not surprised by the phenomenon. He argues that there is no intra-party democracy in most political parties in the country. He adds this is because political parties are so personalised and give leaders more powers than everyone.
“Our greatest problem is that party members are at the mercy of the leaders. These are too powerful and are greatly feared. This kills democracy because with this scenario, you can see that some parties such as DPP already know who will be their candidates come 2019. They might go through the formality of a convention, but everyone knows who will be the candidate. The same in UDF, there is no pride on who will take the party to elections assuming that the crop of politicians leading it are liked by then,” explains Dulani.
He adds that this is a test to the country’s democracy. Democracy, according to him, has to root from the political party level.
“We cannot have an undemocratic party managing democratic politics. That cannot work. So we need democracy to start at the party level and this should go to the next level. Being critical of the party leadership or expressing interest for a party leadership position should never be considered a crime.
“The whole idea is to bring new kind of thinking and try to attract the support of the electorate because the whole essence of going into an election is to win and so each party should field the best candidate elected democratically and not hand-picking, but through a competitive process, but it looks like our political party leaders are strangers to the whole idea of competition. When one says I want to compete, it is seen as a threat, which is not necessarily the correct thing,” he explains.
Dulani advises political parties to allow everyone to debate, express their views on party matters without fear or threats and to challenge the leadership in internal elections if intraparty democracy is to be appreciated.
Concurring with him is fellow Chancellor College political analyst Dr Blessings Chinsinga who describes the degree of intraparty democracy in Malawi political parties as very low.
Chinsinga ties his argument to the tendency in which most leaders are regarded as founders. He says unlike in MCP, most leaders are founders and so have more powers than everyone else and think they can make any decision even without consulting. This, he argues, ties tongues of the members from challenging their leadership even when it is going off-track.
According to Chinsinga, although the MCP has a unique scenario especially where choosing leaders is concerned, the party still maintains a one-party hangover, which emphasises on the powers to the authority. He believes Chakwera is benefiting from that long culture.
He says this culture is beyond Malawi, since it believes that an incumbent is more powerful and should be respected. This, Chinsinga observes, kills intraparty democracy.
“Any member should be allowed to question and challenge the sitting president and there is no question about that. The degree of support the challengers can get, however, is rather limited because there is unspoken consensus in the rest of the membership,” says Chinsinga.
On the way forward, Chinsinga says there is room for improvement. He observes that the starting point should be to disconnect political parties from family ties and make parties operate as social movements with attractive environments and a much defined ideological perspective. Such perspective should be a well institutionalised system that allows members to voice out concerns and compete on equal footing.
Susan Scarrow, writing for National Democratic Institute (NDI) in her paper titled Political Parties and Democracy in Theoretical and Practical Perspective: Implementing Intraparty Democracy notes that there has been little agreement about whether it is necessary for parties to organise themselves in internally democratic ways in order to promote the democratic functioning of the political systems in which they compete.
“But even if views still differ on the absolute necessity of intraparty democracy, most agree that there are often sound and even self-interested reasons for parties to adopt more open decision-making processes. Such procedures may help parties win elections, recruit and select good candidates, and retain popular support. On the other hand, in some instances, internally democratic procedures may undermine parties,” reads the paper.
As we head towards the 2019 elections, Scarrow’s argument may be something not to ignore if democracy in political parties has a bearing on party performance in an election.