The United Democratic Front (UDF) and the political world might look at 2015 as the year the final nail that may just have sent the once ruling party six feet under was hammered into its ravaged body.
Specifically, that was when it allowed itself to be swallowed by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Parliament in early 2015.
No wonder Sam Mpasu, a veteran politician who was one of UDF’s earliest members and long time Cabinet minister in the Bakili Muluzi administration, declared in February 2015: “Atupele Muluzi is finished without DPP because UDF is finished.”
Mpasu was referring to Atupele’s move to, first accept to be a Cabinet minister in the triumphant Peter Mutharika administration in 2014 and then, second, dragging the party to be under DPP in Parliament in 2015, a move that has left it without a meaningful voice in the House.
That parliamentary move came after Atupele had for more than a year failed to explain with any degree of clarity what kind of relationship he or his party has with DPP and what is in it for his party.
That apparently unilateral decision to push his party into DPP arms opened Atupele up to accusations of using UDF to further his personal interests.
No one was more direct than Mpasu in this respect during an interview last February.
“UDF has been deceiving itself, its members and Malawians in general that it is not in government. Tell me, can the president of the UDF be in Cabinet and his party in opposition?” wondered Mpasu, a former speaker of Parliament.
He added: “By finally pushing for its members of Parliament [MPs] to be on government benches, UDF is simply admitting what they have been dodging—that the party has been dragged into a governing alliance whose terms are only understood by one person: Atupele.”
UDF’s fall is poignant.
Until roughly 10 years ago, UDF was by far the largest political party in Malawi before its then president, Bakili Muluzi took a wrong turn in the succession path.
And when his son, Atupele, took over the wheels in 2014, he gunned down the party right into the political ditch it is still stuck in today.
UDF, together with Alliance for Democracy (Aford), were popular during the transition from one party State to multiparty democracy.
So popular was UDF that it easily won the 1994 general elections, defeating the then popular multi-party hero Chakufwa Chihana and his Aford.
UDF proceeded to win another general election in 1999 and bagged 91 seats in Parliament.
Where did things start going wrong?
The genesis of UDF’s problems date back to around 2003 when Bakili started agitating for a third term and later open terms, which flopped in Parliament where legislators narrowly rejected it.
What broke the camel’s back was Bakili’s attitude that if he could not continue enjoying the presidency, no one else in the party would.
He thus proceeded to court and eventually plucked a failed politician at the time—Bingu wa Mutharika—from political oblivion, first installing him as Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank of Malawi (RBM) then Economic Planning and Development Minister and, before the party could even scream UUUUUUUUUU! Bingu wa Mutharika was the UDF torch-bearer in 2004.
It was during the third/open terms struggle and Bakili’s irresponsible succession handling that the party started disintegrating, with senior figures leaving the grouping–mostly to form their own—after falling out with Bakili over his hunger to extend his presidency beyond the constitutional two five-year terms and refusing to entertain healthy competition in the party for the top leadership.
For example, then State vice president Justin Malewezi resigned from his position a few months before the end of the presidential term and went ahead to launch a failed bid in May 2004 as an independent presidential candidate.
Party vice president Aleke Banda—one of the few voices of reason in UDF—also left the party in disgust.
He later formed People’s Progressive Movement (PPM), which became a force to reckon with, though to a smaller extent.
Party heavy weight Brown Mpinganjira left for the same reasons to form his National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which chipped away at the UDF support, especially in the Lhomwe Belt where he was influential.
Lower Shire heavy weight Harry Thomson also quit; hence, the party lost a fairly respected figure among the Senas. Of the 50 odd political parties currently registered in Malawi, most of them were formed by people who were frustrated with UDF as the values and principles around which it was built were eroded.
Thus, UDF, as an entity and a brand, was irreparably bruised thanks to breakaways, each of whom took away tiny bits of the party, leaving a shell that lost its form.
While the UDF narrowly won the 2004 presidential election with just about a third of the vote—a very narrow margin compared to its 1999 sweep—the party lost its soul and its heart, which Muluzi wrenched out of its chest by spitting at intra-party democracy.
That loss was reflected in the parliamentary hemorrhage, which has been declining sharply ever since, winning just 49 parliamentary seats in 2004 from 91 in 1999.
The figures drastically fell in subsequent elections when it won just 16 seats in 2009 and now has 14 House representatives.
As if that was not enough, the party ordered its MPs to move from the opposition to government benches last year.
This created tension, unease and difference in opinion among legislators, party followers and analysts.
Law lecturer at Chancellor College, a constituent college of the University of Malawi (Unima) Associate Professor Edge Kanyongolo and the Malawi Law Society (MLS) said by moving to government side, the UDF has not breached any law.
In a statement, MLS said as long as the party MPs had not joined another party, they could not be deemed to have crossed the floor.
Kanyongolo said: “The section says one crosses after resigning from their political parties and joins another party in parliament. In this case, I do not think the UDF MPs have resigned.”
On the other hand, South Africa-based legal scholar Danwood Chirwa and lawyer Justin Dzonzi of Justice Link thought otherwise.
Chirwa, a professor of law at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, said the section prevents MPs elected on party tickets from switching allegiance once elected by way either of resigning from that political party or joining another political party.
“We know that UDF MPs have moved from opposition benches to government benches. That conduct can be used to support the view that those MPs have crossed the floor within the meaning of Section 65,” he said.
But the difference in opinion was not just among the political observers. There was also division among UDF legislators, with some against the move, others supporting it and yet a certain group went along out of fear, worrying that if they refused, they could be kicked out of the party.
While all the MPs moved, their leader, Lucius Banda, remained in the opposition because he said he did not see the need.
“I am not convinced that it is necessary to go that side [government benches] to support government because I have already been supporting while here [opposition benches],” he said.
Banda received the backing of Boniface Dulani, a political scientist at Chancellor College in Zomba and thousands of people on social media who looked at his stance as principled.
The political fallout for the UDF was great and the price high.
Following the UDF MPs’ move to government benches, Speaker of Parliament Richard Msowoya decided to invoke Section 65 which would have deemed the party members to have crossed the floor. They were saved by the court.
As if that was not enough misery for the once mighty UDF, the party was kicked out of the agenda-setting Business Committee of Parliament.
But what could be the party’s future?
In an interview, Happy Kayuni, associate professor of political and administrative studies at Chancellor College, says UDF, as the country knew it, is finished.
“I do not see the UDF surviving because the number of its MPs will continue dwindling. The problem is that the party joined the alliance with the DPP as a junior partner that is why it is being used,” he said.
But UDF spokesperson Ken Ndanga described Kayuni’s opinion as wishful thinking.
“As I am talking to you, we are meeting MPs and party leaders from the districts here [in Liwonde] to map the way forward. UDF will never die and those who think so will be shocked,” he said.
In other words, Ndanga says eulogies for UDF are premature. Or are they?
Only time will tell. n