Despite the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) instructing chiefs and faith groups not to take sides in the run-up to the May 21 Tripartite Elections, stakeholders are divided on this issue, with some openly endorsing their preferred candidates.
In March this year, MEC wrote the Local Government and Rural Development Ministry over the conduct of some chiefs who have been endorsing candidates for the May 21 Tripartite Elections.
In the letter, signed by MEC chief elections officer Sam Alfandika, the commission advised chiefs to desist from the conduct, emphasising that doing so was a violation of the Chiefs’ Code of Conduct.
“Much as chiefs have and are entitled to exercise political rights just like any other citizen, such rights accrue to the chiefs as individuals and private citizens. In their capacity as traditional leaders, chiefs are not allowed to be partisan and should, therefore, not affiliate themselves to political parties or candidates with the intention of influencing their subjects’ political choices,” read the letter in part.
Last week, MEC commissioner Jean Mathanga said religious leaders must desist from endorsing political candidates to avoid infringing on people’s rights to choose a candidate of their choice.
Mathanga made the remarks in her speech read on her behalf by Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) senior public education officer Catherine Nkhoma at Ezondweni Technical College in Mzimba during an interface with traditional leaders.
But over the past months, some faith groups, such as the Islamic Commission for Justice and Freedom (ICJP) and Quadria Muslim Association of Malawi (Qmam) and some traditional leaders such as Paramount Chief Kyungu of Karonga have openly endorsed the DPP candidate President Peter Mutharika.
However, other major political parties, chiefs and faith groups, in separate interviews this week, expressed dissent over the practice. They have since asked MEC not to “doze off” but ensure that chiefs abide by their Code of Conduct.
In an interview, Inkosi ya Makhosi M’mbelwa V agreed with MEC, saying in their jurisdictions, chiefs oversee people of different political affiliations and “the moment you start endorsing a particular candidate, the fear is that you can create animosity among the subjects if your preferred candidate loses.”
UTM spokesperson Joseph Chidanti-Malunga and United Democratic Front (UDF) secretary general Kandi Padambo expressed the same sentiments, stating that it was immoral for faith groups and traditional leaders to endorse candidates.
Malunga stated: “It is wrong [to endorse particular candidates]. They are supposed to be neutral. Imagine a situation where the endorsed candidate has not won, how will they work with the person they did not approve?”
On his part, Padambo said people must not delve too much into the issue because Malawi has a one-citizen-one-vote system and the best such endorsements could achieve is influencing.
“So, the practice of endorsements must be discouraged at all levels. Faith groups and chiefs should always be apolitical,” he said.
Episcopal Conference of Malawi (ECM) secretary general Father Henry Saindi said the June 2018 ECM statement clearly said “no to endorsement of a particular politician or political party”.
“The statement of the Catholic bishops in Malawi reminded all priests, religious men and women, catechists, heads of Catholic institutions etc. to refrain from making utterances or doing things that can justifiably be perceived as advancing partisan politics.
“They concluded their statement by stating in clear terms that “the Catholic bishops cannot and shall not support or endorse any particular politician or political party,” said Saindi in a written response.
However, Saindi said, among other things, the statement did not stop Catholics from taking an active role in politics, including seeking political power at all levels of the national governance structure.
Evangelical Association of Malawi (EAM) secretary general Francis Mkandawire said once religious leaders start endorsing particular individuals, they end up fragmenting the institutions.