Buckle up. It is nomination time, the season Malawians get to know the most guarded secret in politics—presidential candidates and running mates—in a vote which will decide the future of President Peter Mutharika’s tenure.
On February 3 2020, a five-judge panel of the High Court of Malawi sitting as the Constitutional Court nullified Mutharika’s May 21 2019 victory in the first case where results of a presidential election were subjected to a full trial.
Now he faces stiff competition from a united opposition front after Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and UTM Party sealed an electoral alliance in March.
While it is no secret that Mutharika will be on the ballot on July 2 to make good of the botched victory, his running mate remains under lock and key.
Will he maintain Everton Chimulirenji whose vice-presidency was scrapped by the Constitutional Court in the widely-publicised election case or prefer United Democratic Front (UDF) president Atupele Muluzi.
In 2019, Mutharika stunned DPP old-timers and enthusiasts when he picked little-known Chimulirenji , then Ntcheu North East legislator, at a roundabout in Blantyre just minutes before officially presenting his nomination papers to the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC).
Will it be a repeat? This is the major question in the blue camp bruised by the cancellation of the May 2019 triumph.
There were similar uncertainties in the opposition, where only the schedule for the presentation of nominations starting today shows MCP leader Lazarus Chakwera will present nomination papers, a hint that he could be the torchbearer of Tonse Alliance.
Further strengthening the uncertainty was UTM leader Saulos Chilima on Monday who told journalists that the alliance torchbearer would only be known when they present the nomination papers at Sunbird Mount Soche today.
He said: “It will be either me or Dr Lazarus Chakwera.
There can only be one torchbearer and so someone can’t expect that two people will lead. We discussed this at our executive meeting even before signing the agreement.”
With the cat out of the bag, political scientists are already debating why parties desperate for votes keep a tight lid on their presidential candidates and running mates.
For them, the big question is: What does it benefit the political blocks to keep the voters guessing until the official unveiling of nominees for the top job?
“Why the secrecy?” asks political scientist Makhumbo Munthali.”From an accountability perspective, citizens need to know the candidates in good time to make an informed choice.”
However, Munthali does not see any convincing reason why both alliances kept a secret on who should be their torchbearers and running mates just a few weeks before elections.
But MCP spokesperson the Reverend Maurice Munthali says the opposition alliance was in no hurry to announce its presidential candidate because “nobody gave us a time limit”.
He told Weekend Nation recently: “So, why does it seem to be a fire-fighting exercise? We are working against no deadline.”
Mustafa Hussein, from the Department of Political and Administrative Studies at Chancellor College, a constituent college of the University of Malawi, says the secrecy helps snubbed hopefuls deal with rejection.
“MCP and UTM supporters expected their leader will be the torchbearer. If you announce the name early, you may disappoint many people,” he said.
Hussein reckons the best then is to announce the torchbearers at the eleventh hour when it is too late for disappointed aspirants on both sides to get nomination papers.
“While it seems a delicate balance, announcing late could help. At that point, people will accept with time because it will be too late to make a big decision,” he explains.
But another political scientist Ernest Thindwa opines that in the interest of transparency and accountability, the MCP-UTM candidate would have been known by now for disappointed supporters to recover before polling.
“The longer they take, the more difficult they will make it for some followers of the party whose party does not get the top nomination to recover from the heartbreak,” he states.
Social media spats show that supporters of both Chilima and Chakwera wanted their man to take the lead, but one has to step down to become a running mate.
Munthali claims that the UTM-MCP pact was largely “forced” on the two who contested on their respective party tickets in May 2019.
Their unity to unseat Mutharika was pronounced during the marathon case in which they moved the court to annul the election marred by tippexed results and other irregularities.
Second-placed Chakwera beat Chilima in the disputed poll.
“As supporters of each party have high expectations, it may not have been plausible to make early announcements. The vice-presidency in Malawi is not that attractive as the VPs relationship with Presidents has not been that rosy. Maybe these leaders wanted to agree on how they will work together, and that takes time.”
The analysts warn that Mutharika could be in for a worse headache as Chimulirenji’s ascendency left the party warped. While optimism in Chimulirenji’s camp is rising that he could be in to reclaim the post he lost in February, a feeling is gaining sway that even nominating Muluzi as a running mate could be a vote of no confidence in old-timers royal to DPP.
“While maintaining Chimulirenji would be seen as a good move to maintain party unity and easy for Mutharika to justify, this may be viewed as a missed opportunity to get the Eastern region vote by bringing Muluzi into the equation,” Munthali opines.
This might not be the only dilemma faced by DPP as others secretly whine about lack of trust between the party and the Muluzi family. In 2005, Mutharika’s brother, Bingu, founded DPP month after falling out with former president Bakili Muluzi and UDF which sponsored his rise to power.
Analyst Thindwa calls this “a chess game”.
He explains: “DPP is still wary of its history, so not many people in the party would be comfortable to have a Muluzi as a running mate. So, I think Mutharika’s running mate will come from DPP even though there is already power struggle and that could be the reason it is also taking long. Mutharika could be trying to balance power. Rushing to unveil his running mate may expose those cracks.”
Hussein believes Mutharika has a no easy headache, with UDF veterans clearly stating that they want Muluzi to be running mate.