Three of the eight presidential candidates last night provided pointers to voters, during the first 2019 presidential debate, on what to expect from their administrations should they be ushered into government during the May 21 Tripartite Elections.
Atupele Muluzi of United Democratic Front (UDF), Lazarus Chakwera of Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and UTM’s Saulos Chilima tried to outshine one another in the first of the three-series debates held in Lilongwe to woo the votes from Malawians who packed the venue as well as tuned in to their radio and television stations at home.
Organised as a red carpet event in the main auditorium of Bingu International Convention Centre (Bicc), the three made their cases articulating how they would tackle different issues.
However, they offered no clear strategic distinctions for voters’ preference among the eight individuals that will appear on the presidential ballot paper on May 21.
While Muluzi, who is President Peter Mutharika’s Minister of Health, appeared to have relatively different policy directions, Chakwera and Chilima had more common grounds in their responses to questions posed by moderator Grace Malera.
For instance, when the three were asked about their opinion on implementation of the controversial Farm Input Subsidy Programme (Fisp), Chilima and Chakwera clearly stated they would discontinue the programme and introduce the universal subsidy system, but Muluzi took a middle line by not indicating whether he would do the same or not.
However, the three candidates agreed that there was deep-rooted corruption in government and that the introduction of quota system of selecting university students had done more harm than good.
“As UDF, we don’t believe in quota system. Our responsibility will be to ensure that the best and the bright students have fair chance of selection. So we will look for funds to construct more schools to increase students’ admission in schools,” said Muluzi.
On corruption, which is one key challenge to Malawi’s developmental and transformational process, all the three candidates said their plan for a corrupt-free government.
Chilima repeated what he had been preaching that once he is voted into government he would give suspected ‘thieves’ a 30-day amnesty to return the loot or else they would all be hunted, arrested and convicted.
He said he would also ensure that laws are reviewed so that immunity for presidents is removed to allow governance institutions probe them if suspected of corrupt practises.
Chakwera said: “MCP will ensure that governance institutions are independent of anybody, have enough funding and expertise to deal with corruption at all levels. They should not be under the president or any political influence.”
Muluzi, still serving as a Cabinet minister in Mutharika’s government, abandoned his often soft-spoken and easy-going demure to relentlessly attack Chakwera and Chilima for what he thought were faulty policies.
He positioned himself as a leader willing to cooperate with any government for “the general good of Malawians”, while condemning MCP, in not-so-veiled jibes, as a party of bitterness and UTM as a party of frustration.
Owning some achievements in the current administration, Muluzi accused his political rivals for allegedly copying his ideas from the 2014 campaign, but failed to convincingly defend UDF as an independent party with a better plan to rule the country.
Muluzi, whose party is yet to launch its manifesto, constantly veered into promises that UTM and MCP have made, on several occasions dismissing the two parties’ manifestos as being long on promises and short on how they would be implemented.
It was not always a move that ended with success. For example, Muluzi’s criticism of Chilima’s promise to create a million jobs as contradicting UTM’s plan to mechanise agriculture drew audible disapproval from the audience. The UDF candidate suggested mechanisation of agriculture would cut jobs for farmers.
It also drew a rebuke from Chilima: “He (Muluzi) said running government is serious business but failing to read your political opponents’ manifesto in full smacks lack of seriousness.
“One million jobs will be created by many other sectors and mechanisation doesn’t always mean fewer jobs. We have in our manifesto mega farms and other projects.”
To many financing challenges facing various sectors such as education and health, both Chilima and Chakwera reaffirmed how saving resources through fighting corruption would improve the resource envelope.
The crowd inside Bicc at times laughed, jeered and reacted petulantly-forcing security to be called to evict a few patrons, but after two hours, it was tough to say who had carried the day on ideas.
Chakwera in an interview later lamented Mutharika’s absence, describing it as a lost opportunity for him to put the spotlight on his record in power.
He described Mutharika’s no-show as a testimony that his government lacked respect for tenants of democracy.
Chilima expressed optimism that his articulation of policies was enough to win the watching public while Muluzi insisted UDF was not defending the ruling party in the debate, but championing its own agenda.
University of Malawi political analyst Ernest Thindwa said the event was “generally good” but with several areas of improvement such as the host taking more time to wind up questions.
“The how question was not addressed adequately by the candidates. The
candidates promised a lot but how they want to move from where we are
now to where they want to be, they were not clear,” he said.
He added: “So there was need to have a clear policy proposition in order to address the gaps they are seeing. So it was a mere talk show.”
On his part, political commentator Humphrey Mvula said it was a great opportunity lost for Mutharika because, as a sitting President, he should have been able to articulate issues to Malawians as he seeks re-election.
Chairperson of the organising task force Teresa Ndanga said they organise the presidential debates to level the playing field where one political party may dominate access to the media.
She said the debate also gives Malawians opportunity to hear, analyse and shape the country’s future.
“The debate provides unique opportunity for candidates to speak directly to voters and get their messages out. They also allow candidates to connect with independent and undecided voters who are less likely to attend a campaign rally,” she said.
According to Ndanga, the candidates were grouped to ensure quality as well as an opportunity for the candidates to have ample time to defend their policies and manifestos.
Barbs dominate debate
Opposition MCP, UTM and UDF leaders often traded barbs last night as each tried to convince Malawians to choose him as the next President in the May 21 general elections.
Chakwera, Chilima and Muluzi could not help being entangled in several verbal flashpoints as they engaged one another in the first of three-part debates for the eight presidential candidates in the May polls.
The audience laughed, clapped and urged on the contestants as they traded the barbs and as they shared their parties’ plans on various national development challenges.
This public reaction violated the strict discipline and decorum rules the debate organisers had announced at the start of the event. The people were told not to clap hands, cheer or jeer, unless they were permitted to do so by debate the moderator.
In the end, the moderator seemed to tolerate public cheering and handclapping, perhaps because it could have been odd and dour for the more than two hours of debating to be conducted under the rigid orders.
All the candidates had digs at one another when they were asked to close the debate with closing remarks.
Muluzi described Chakwera and Chilima as intelligent and “very fine men” and he praised himself for having served in the governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)-led government to serve Malawians. n