The issue of ownership of political parties was in the spotlight last week after People’s Party (PP) provincial governor for the north Christopher Mzomera Ngwira unveiled former State vice-president Khumbo Kachali as interim party leader in view of the prolonged absence of its elected leader Joyce Banda.
As expected, some senior officials within the establishment have dismissed Ngwira’s stance, saying his decision flouts the party’s ideologies and that the move is disrespectful to the founder of the party.
The question of ‘one-man/woman ownership’ of parties has always been debated and it appears a good chunk of the citizenry has accepted it as a norm. Even ordinary or low-ranked members, however brilliant or dedicated they may be, cannot dare contest for leadership in the parties.
But how can this blot on the democratic cloth be erased?
Yusuf Aufi, president of the Maravi People’s Party (MPP), thinks the solution lies in political parties introduction of membership fees.
He explains: “Party membership fees will force leaders of political parties to account for their actions and decisions. This prevents leaders from coming up with selfish policies since they realise that they do not own the entity 100 percent. We can borrow a leaf from how the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) did this.”
Aufi says the MCP model can be adopted with a few modifications.
“I think that was the best strategy in that no leader would feel absolute ownership of parties even if they were a founding member. Otherwise, the status quo turns them into demigods who decide the direction their respective parties will take. They also use the party as a fundraising tool, but they lie that they are spending their own finances to run the party,” he says.
Aufi adds that it is a pity that political party founders in the country are greatly feared that no one can challenge them during party conventions or elections.
“If you do so they will tell you that you will fund your own campaign or worse still you can be chased from the convention venue. You could also be regarded as persona non-grata, facing outright dismissal from the party,” he explains.
The politician observes that the other remedy for the malaise is holding regular conventions.
“Regular conventions enhance intra-party democracy and give chance to followers to elect or remove leaders of their choice. Through conventions, members are accorded an opportunity to contribute to party policies and this should be encouraged as it can help our democracy grow.
The absence of this erodes party loyalty by members or ordinary citizens. Such problems are worsened by the lack of adherence to political ideologies. One can easily notice that this type of leaders don’t have a clue as to what ideologies their parties are founded on,” says Aufi.
He calls on political parties to declare their sources of funding, arguing that doing so would make leaders more transparent.
Patrick Zeus Phambala, a Lilongwe-based political and social commentator, proposes the establishment of a political party funding regulatory body which, in his view, would widen public interest in the running and overall ownership of parties.
“Unregulated party funding is a major contributor to this problem and is responsible for the demigods in political parties. In addition to this, limits on contribution for party funding could also work to discourage the syndrome.
“Unfortunately, transparency in these issues is disregarded. But that brings an element of trust between the party leadership and its members. In Europe, no party founders have a right to claim ownership or exercise monopoly in positions of the policy-making process. In most European countries, parties are mandated to observe their funding principles and orientations, are not allowed to accept anonymous donations, let alone donations exceeding a certain amount per year,” says Phambala.
He then observes that parties formed on ethnicities fall victim to the founder syndrome.
“In this case followers do so simply because they come from the same area. There is a myth, which is unfortunately believed by most politicians, that ethnic identity plays an important role in popularising political parties and holding them together,” says Phambala.
Heather Mselema, an auditor based in Dowa, emphasises the need for parties to strive to be reliable institutions that provide the connection between politics and society.
“Political parties should come up with deliberate policies to give room to followers to contribute and own the party. This will also allow parties to incorporate people’s demands and wishes and provide proper conduits for selecting and selecting people for government. It is unfortunate that parties often fail to do these roles sufficiently with the desired credibility. However, these weaknesses leave a huge and negative concern when they start to impact negatively on the wheels of democracy,” says Mselema.