Since the dawn of democracy through a June 14 1993 referendum, Malawi has had tens of political parties. Currently, says Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) spokesperson Sangwani Mwafulirwa, the country has over 50 registered political parties.
Most of them do not contest in elections. For instance, during the May 20 2014 Tripartite Elections, the race for State House had 12 candidates. Not surprising though, only four political parties were competitive. This has, over the years, raised questions on why the country should have so many political parties.
Scholars have argued that unchecked governance can hardly achieve efficient and transparent leadership. This is what created room for opposition in governance systems in democracy.
However, as argued by University of Malawi’s Chancellor College political analyst Boniface Dulani in an earlier interview, government and opposition in Malawi work as competitors and barely trust each other. This is evident every time government unveils ideas and the opposition reaction is often a contrasting argument.
On May 20, President Peter Mutharika presented the State of the Nation Address (Sona) and on Friday May 27, Minister of Finance, Economic Planning and Development Goodall Gondwe read a budget statement in Parliament.
Despite some quarters of the society, including the donor community and economists, raising thumbs for government on some of the issues in the documents, the opposition political parties dismissed the two documents.
Main opposition political party Malawi Congress Party (MCP) described the Sona as ‘empty’ and labelled the budget statement unfriendly to Malawians.
This should not be surprising. Interestingly, on any reaction, government hits back and the underlining point is that the opposition just opposes for the sake of it.
“They just oppose without offering solutions,” says Minister of Information, Communications Technology and Civic Education Patricia Kaliati.
But MCP spokesperson Ezekiel Ching’oma defends the trend, saying as opposition they stand for the truth and oppose where it is necessary. He acknowledges that opposing for the sake of it can only derail development.
“We stand for Malawians and oppose behind the aspirations of the majority. There are many directions, which we believe had we not opposed, could have been effected and start labouring the majority. For instance, the raising of the fees in secondary schools, it is us who asked government to postpone the move and we are happy government listened. This is what we call team work and the relationship that should exist between us,” says Ching’oma, adding they praise government where it is necessary.
However, this is not strange. In one of his articles, an American political commentator, Charles Krauthammer, clearly brings this to light.
“When a political party is in opposition, it opposes and that is its job, but when it comes to power, it must govern. Easy rhetoric is over, the press of reality becomes irresistible,” reads the article in part.
Reading through the stand of government and that of opposition in Malawi, it contradicts the tenets of democracy and reduces the relevance of opposition. Unfortunately, it seems the opposition has no option.
Unit VII of the Commonwealth paper titled The Role of Opposition: The Two Sides of Parliament reveals that inevitably, the opposition often has a difficult decision to make in regards to supporting government on a piece of legislation or in working to a consensus on a policy matter. The paper adds that this could be a statesman like approach and in the national interest, but the possibility of negative perception of such stances by civil society and the people can be damaging to the opposition.
“In particular, important minority interests that the opposition represents may feel aggrieved or neglected if consensus is too easily reached. This may result in the opposition putting forward an alternative view even if the national interest dictates otherwise,” reads the paper.
But isn’t this destructive?
Dulani argues that the opposition is necessary in a democratic nation and competition between opposition and government in governance is a good thing and a central part of modern democratic politics.
“Of course, competition that leads to constant government paralysis and sometimes violence is not good for the country. As a people, we need to learn and embrace the spirit of pluralism and the culture of tolerance even of those we disagree with,” he says.
He adds that such relationship demonstrates civility and camaraderie even if they strongly disagree ideologically.
Dulani says: “Those in government should stop looking at the opposition as agitators, but as colleagues that have different ideas for the good of the nation. On their part, the opposition should learn to acknowledge where government has done a good job and further desist from what I characterise as ‘gotcha’ politicking, the idea of waiting for the government to make wrong decisions with a view to score political points.”
Michael Jana, another Chancellor College political analyst, shares the view that opposition that lives to fight can destroy a nation.
“This game has the potential to slow down human progress or development if power is considered as an end in itself. There is need for respecting institutions that provide avenues for opposition contribution to government business such as Parliament,” he advises.
Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) executive director Timothy Mtambo reminds the opposition and government that they serve Malawians. He warns on opposition designed to fight for power instead of serving the interests of Malawians, saying such is a thorn in national development.
“At the same time, competition is important for democracy as long as such competition is based on principles rather than trivia. A scenario where the opposition is criticising government over a flawed policy and piles pressure for government to reform the policy, such a competition is important as it is in public interest,” he explains.
However, the dangerous part with strong opposition is that it overturns a leadership direction.
According to Anthony Bakali, a graduate in political leadership at Catholic University, leadership style and dreams of each political leader can be read from the manifestos.
He says it is the same ideas they take into government after elections to materialise and they do whatever possible to achieve them to leave a legacy.
He adds that the moment strong opposition follows; leaders end up dropping ideas or get confused.
“Opposition is necessary, but I have always questioned the quality of our opposition and their objectives. They have watered down the intent of political opposition because they oppose on anything. You do not have to be on the negative side to be correct or prove to be working and strong.
“Government too, should not always stand to defend and attack the opposition because this builds a perception of two camps looking at each other as adversaries which is not healthy in democracy,” says Bakali. n