Small is the new big. Onlookers get this impression as political parties emerge and assert their relevance 20 years after the restoration of democracy in Malawi.
As the country grapples with the realities of multiparty politics, more and more political parties outside are standing up against violations of national aspirations by the so-called major parties, including the ruling People’s Party (PP).
The rise of the silent giants is expected in a country with 46 parties against a population of 15 million. The US has only two major ones for its over 350 million voters. Critics call the influx of parties a manifestation of massive misconception of multiparty politics, but the parties outside Parliament may not be just what they look like—small units that can only start claiming to be voice of the voiceless if they get to Parliament or claim the Presidency.
National Salvation Front (Nasaf) president James Nyondo once likened ruling parties to a dance involving the same characters, steps and song but only changing names and colours. However, he courted fire when he said poor leadership has left the country running like an airplane with limited attention from the pilot.
“The mudslinging among political leaders, constant change of sitting plan in the National Assembly [and] the endless public meetings for small food distribution reveal a government that is running on autopilot,” said Nyondo in November.
And in what has become a typical spin since the switch from one-party rule to multiparty in 1993, ruling PP publicist Hophmally Makande brushed off Nyondo as a political nonentity by wondering: “What good can come from a man who suffered a landslide loss in 2009 presidential polls? Can he legitimately claim to be a people’s voice when he is not even an MP?”
Proponents of ‘Makandeism’ could have said as much when Peoples Transformation Party (Petra) president gave government and Paladin Africa Limited 14 days to tell the nation why the uranium mining deal at Kayelekera in Karonga cannot be renegotiated to benefit Malawians.
The ultimatum may have passed with nothing more than renewed reminders that the contract is not hewn in stone, but shooting down voices outside Parliament denies government vital viewpoints on national issues.
It is not wrong for elected leaders to refuse calling a spoon a small spade. Neither could spoons be right to play big as if they were spades. Yet, the so-called small parties offer another point of view seldom uttered by the biggies.
In the recent past, Petra, Peoples Progressive Movement (PPM) and other extra-parliamentary parties have been vocal in denouncing a litany of violations of human rights, dictatorial economic fairness and principles of good governance.
Refusing to shut up at a time the opposition was silently suffering Bingu wa Mutharika’s dictatorial rule, the developing parties, among others, stood against the repression of Joyce Banda (then vice president), sudden closure of the Electoral Commission on allegations of abuse of funds, Mutharika’s order for DPP youth cadets to assault his critics and nearly everything threatening the change Malawians chose in June 14 1993 referendum.
“In any democracy, everybody has got freedom of speech and a duty to take part in public life regardless of where they are. That liberty has been there, is there and will be there. We don’t have to wait for anybody to create space for us; we create our own,” said Petra president Chibambo.
He upholds the ideology of umunthu (humanism) as the foundation of an “economically independent and exploitation-free Malawi” that Petra seeks to build. He says Malawians do not have to worry even if the country had 100 political parties, because none of them forces people to elect them.
“Malawians should not worry because democracy has a way of flashing out parties that are not relevant. Rather, people should worry about the quality of what the parties have to offer and start demanding to know the visions, manifestos, constitutions and ideologies that underpin their existence,” argues the Petra leader.
PPM leader Mark Katsonga was in Parliament before his party lost all seats in 2009. He rarely comments on political developments but often issues strong-worded statements in the press.
In an interview, Katsonga said parties outside parliament get their mandate from their following, arguing: “Even if we had one supporter, he or she would have to be heard.”
Although democracy is alternatively called majority rule, but morality requires many to respect the few too.
Katsonga feels the country is nursing a wrong political and government system which keeps recycling its own and deny new brains space by a game of monopoly.
He says PPM is doing all it can to correct the system that has been giving birth to identical parties since the genesis of Kamuzu Banda’s Malawi Congress Party in 1959.
Said Katsonga: “We claim to be a multiparty country, but we are not. Parties need to have different ideologies, policies and ways of doing things when they get into power. I haven’t seen anything of that sort since the MCP era. United Democratic Front [UDF] emerged from MCP where its leader Bakili Muluzi was a senior minister and all the parties that we have had after UDF are not different at all from UDF.”
He reckons the system is open to manipulation by the same old politicians who just change names without bringing real change. In this case, he says, 2014 Presidential and Parliamentary elections offer Malawians a chance to choose between “continued destruction of the country or restoration”.
“We have a golden opportunity to move out of the cocoon in which we have been in the past 20 years and start redefining the future of the country. Either we make a U-turn or continue with the status quo, which entails more poverty, hunger, disease and envy,” he said.
PPM and Petra belong to a league of rare parties which do not trace their history to former ruling parties. Together with other political parties, they usually blame ruling parties’ monopoly of State airwaves for their failure to reach out to the electorate with how they intend to free the country from the spiral of destruction.
In an interview, political scientist Dr Blessings Chinsinga said the influx of parties could be a sign that people understand their freedom of association or a symptom of the current crop of leaders’ failure to manage parties properly.
He reckons the destruction of most small parties lies in how they begin—saying: “Most of what we call parties are just splinter groups which started with nothing distinctive to offer, but frustration with how their mother parties are being run.
“I have been privileged to read manifestos and constitutions of local parties and most of them are similar. No wonder, less than 10 percent of the registered parties are operational.”
Confirming the thievery, President Joyce Banda said her party would not disclose its manifesto for fear of copycats. However, PP has to open the book for people to judge whether it’s a new deal or just another plagiarist on the bloc.
The hateful multiplication of parties is no secret. Apart from its successor UDF, MCP begot Gwanda Chakuamba’s Republican Party (RP) and Dr Hetherwick Ntaba’s New Congress for Democracy (NCD) after a protracted battle for leadership. Likewise, UDF birthed defunct dissenters in James Mpinganjira’s National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and Uladi Mussa’s Maravi People’s Party (MPP) as well as an heir in Mutharika’s DPP. Even the country’s 46th party—New Labour Party is a result of leadership wrangles in the UDF—just as DPP’s rejection of Banda led to the formation of PP.
Chinsinga blames the MCP-UDF-DPP-PP lineage for two decades of the same-minded system no different from the rejected one-party rule. However, Katsonga believes a basket of issues against the self-sustaining family tree offers hope for change if new independent parties outside Parliament find ways of telling people the truth and articulating solutions like PPM’s 20-point strategy to be launched in April.
But as parties outside parliament are battling to keep themselves relevant and improve their standings, the tough task to rebrand themselves becomes even more needful, because a group without a unique identity is like a traveller lost in the crowd.