Most political parties in Malawi have not held national party conventions in years, citing lack of resources, among other reasons. Analysts have argued this threatens the countryâ€™s democracy. Is Peopleâ€™s Party (PP) gesture of holding a national convention a beginning of a new phase in the entrenchment of intra-party democracy in Malawi? Ephraim Nyondo talked with South Africa-based political scientist Michael Jana.
Q: What is the connection between party conventions and democracy?
A: If we accept that democracy puts peopleâ€™s choices and freedoms at the heart of leadership and policy, and if at party conventions organised people in political factions recruit and choose leaders, and articulate peopleâ€™s needs into policy proposals, then one would confidently say that party conventions are indispensable in party democracies.
Q: Do you recall the last time a ruling political party held a convention?
A: On top of my head, I canâ€™t recall the actual dates. Itâ€™s long time back; I guess that confirms how deprived Malawians are in choosing their party leaders and policy proposals. We know that DPP, over six years since inception, has never held a national convention. A quick check on the records shows that MCP and UDF last held their national conventions in 2008. Granted, party conventions, especially national party conventions, are held periodically and there is no set formula for this interval. Pragmatism and tradition normally dictates the national party convention interval. For instance, if a national party convention acts as a platform for choosing leaders to represent a party in national elections and articulate policy proposals, then one would expect national party conventions to happen at least once every five years, that is if national elections happen in five-year intervals, just like what happens in Malawi. That notwithstanding, if you analyse the recent Malawi political landscape, you will realise that party conventions are long overdue in parties like DPP that has never held a convention, and UDF given the recent leadership crisis. In this context, I can confidently say that most party leaders in Malawi have questionable legitimacy; I doubt if people at the grass roots, if given a chance to voice their party leadership choices, would recognise the current leadersâ€™ authority.
Q: What is it in our politics that makes it difficult for political party to hold conventions?
Considering that party conventions can and need to happen at different levels like district, regional and national levels, you are right to observe that it seems that political parties in Malawi find it difficult to hold conventions. I suspect this is the case because the legitimacy of most party leaders in Malawi is not rooted in their performance, but rather in their capacity to distribute patronage resources. To leaders who are surviving on patron-client leadership style, party conventions put a huge strain on their patronage resources and subsequently endanger their grip on power. Such leaders will, therefore, find any excuse to avoid lifting themselves up for scrutiny at such forums as national party convention. To guard their power, they would prefer bribing few cronies with resources and positions to facing 2 000 plus delegates at a national convention election for instance.
Q: We have noted that, despite being up for competition, most big names in the party have shunned competing for the office of the PPâ€™s presidency. What does this mean?
A: I mean, especially being the first convention, one would expect that all positions would be up for grabs. I donâ€™t agree that all PP members have willingly and unanimously endorsed Joyce Banda as the president of PP. I think it goes back to the culture of patronage politics. Being the President of Malawi, Joyce Banda is now effectively a patron who has the capacity to distribute resources and can exclude people from benefiting from the State resources. In such kind of a situation, its either you conform to the Presidentâ€™s wishes or you are squeezed out of such benefits as ministerial positions or other benefits. If you want to remain in the Presidentâ€™s favour, itâ€™s either you support her or you shut up. In that case, it makes sense that no one dared to challenge her for the position of the president. But that must not be the case. In a democratic dispensation, people should be free to contest for positions.
Q: Interestingly, we have also noted that the party has three vice-presidents chosen according to regions. Isnâ€™t this an endorsement of regional politics?
A: I think it is an endorsement of regional politics. That decision I think was based on political arithmetic â€“ to tap into the support from all the regions. But I should be quick to point out that regionalism is not necessarily bad if the recognition of the regional differences is to make sure that all regions are fairly represented and developed. What is bad about regionalism or regional politics is when politicians manipulate the regional differences purely to entrench their power and often to the exclusion of other sections of the society.
Q: Given the background, does PPâ€™s convention augur a new phase in the entrenchment of our democracy?
A: I think PPâ€™s bold step to hold a convention is a step in the right direction. In fact, it has played a crucial role in entrenching intra-party democracy. Already, it has given pressure to other political parties to follow suit; otherwise, the credibility of their leadership and policy proposals are at stake. Of course, the devil is in the details, such as how far the leadership recruitment procedures were, because sometimes party conventions can be held just to endorse decisions that were already made in some informal caucuses.
Q: Do you have any other word?
A: I should commend PP for the step they have taken. That is a way to go if we are to ensure legitimate leadership. The people of Malawi no longer want appointed political leaders; they want to participate in the recruitment of their leaders and formulation of policy.