Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and UTM Party are two key partners in the nine-political party Tonse Alliance, having contributed the winning presidential ticket of President Lazarus Chakwera and Vice-President Saulos Chilima.
But while the two parties’ leaders—Chakwera for MCP and Chilima for UTM Party—jointly campaigned for the presidency they won in the court-ordered June 23 Fresh Presidential Election, demonstrating unity, albeit of purpose, parliamentary by-elections set for November 10 pose the biggest test to the partners.
Three months after the presidential election that united followers of the two parties, tension has risen between the two camps as heavyweights from both sides woo votes for their respective party candidates.
Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) will hold by-elections in Mangochi West, Mangochi North East and Phalombe North following the nullification of 2019 parliamentary election results by the courts.
The electoral body will also conduct by-elections in Lilongwe North West Constituency to fill a vacancy created by the resignation of Chakwera to fulfill legal requirements to contest in the presidential election. In Karonga Central, the vacancy was necessitated by the death of legislator Cornelius Mwalwanda. There will also be a Local Government by-election in Makhuwira South Ward in Chikwawa where a councillor died.
The race is intense between UTM Party and MCP in the five constituencies, but more pronounced in Karonga Central Constituency.
On Saturday, Deputy Speaker of Parliament Madalitso Kazombo campaigned with fellow party officials at selected areas in the constituency.
Speaker of Parliament Catherine Gotani Hara, Leader of the House Richard Chimwendo Banda and Cabinet ministers Lobin Lowe (Agriculture) and Timothy Mtambo (Civic Education and National Unity) were among other MCP campaigners in Karonga Central Constituency.
In a written response on Sunday, MCP spokesperson the Reverend Maurice Munthali said his party is running an issue-based campaign and it does not matter who else is contesting.
He said: “That’s the beauty of democracy. UTM is our brother, just like many others that may wish to contest either within or outside the Tonse Alliance. While serving in the same government and under one President as partners, many parties are free to contest in an election. It speaks volumes of our democratic maturity.”
Munthali added that Tonse Alliance partners are still running the affairs of their respective parties while driving the development agenda of the country under the leadership of Chakwera.
On the by-elections, the MCP spokesperson said his party’s chances of winning in the forthcoming by elections are high, saying at the end of the elections, all the five constituencies and one ward will go to MCP.
But speaking in a separate interview, UTM’s publicity secretary Joseph Chidanti-Malunga said: “Nobody goes to war to lose. What we do with our MPs [members of Parliament] does not affect our presidents. That’s the beauty of Tonse Alliance.”
He also dismissed fears that the campaign could potentially degenerate into politics of vendetta which may compromise the governing relationship between the two parties.
Chidanti-Malunga said MCP and UTM Party have uniquely fused freedom of association at both intra and inter-party levels in Malawi’s coalition politics.
Meanwhile, Mustapha Hussein, a political scientist at Chancellor College—a constituent college of the University of Malawi, said people should not read too much into the intensity of political competition between MCP and UTM Party ahead of the by-elections.
He said: “Tonse Alliance does not mean merging of parties. Each party stands on its own and it is expected that whenever there are such by-elections, the parties will compete and one candidate from a party in the alliance has to win. If the alliance is genuine, whichever candidate wins will be a gain for the alliance.”
Hussein also downplayed conflict of interest assertions over Mtambo’s move to exclusively align himself to the MCP campaign after backing the Tonse Alliance agenda prior to the June 23 polls with his Citizens for Transformation (CFT) movement and after leading pro-opposition protests against the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) regime in 2019, largely patronised by MCP and UTM supporters.
He said: “This is only political competition. There is need for creating an environment where political competition must be viewed positively and not negatively.”
Political commentator Ernest Thindwa, also from Chancellor College, observed that tension, mainly in Karonga and Mangochi constituencies, will be compounded because some parties that are contesting are in a working relationship which does not prevent any party from fielding a candidate for parliamentary elections.
He said: “Where you have one constituency where one party is perceived to have a significant number of supporters, you are likely to see a very close electoral contest and that is the case for Karonga Central because MCP and UTM have gained significant ground in the Northern Region in the absence of Aford.”
According to Thindwa, UTM’s Frank Tumpale Mwenifumbo and MCP’s Leonard Mwalwanda, a nephew to former MP the late Cornelius Mwalwanda, have reasonable chances of winning the seat in Karonga Central Constituency based on their individual qualities not party influence.
Cornelius Mwalwanda won the constituency in 2019 with only 91 votes after triumphing over rival Mwenifumbo with 4 907 votes against Mwenifumbo’s 4 816 votes. Mwenifumbo, who has been MP for 15 years, stood on the Alliance for Democracy (Aford) ticket.
On the other hand, Thindwa said MCP might have an edge over other parties in Lilongwe North West Constituency because the area has been its traditional stronghold and its immediate-past MP was Chakwera.
However, he was at pains to project the possible outcomes for Mangochi West and Mangochi North East only saying the race will not be easy for either United Democratic Front (UDF) or DPP who face mounting opposition from UTM Party and MCP.
But Thindwa said DPP and UDF may not do well in Karonga and Lilongwe, adding that Phalombe North may likely go to DPP.
In the annulled 2019 presidential poll, UTM had a slight edge over MCP in terms of overall support base in the North, but it is yet to be seen how the parties will perform in the by-elections. However, MCP outsmarted UTM Party on the parliamentary vote after winning six seats in the region against UTM Party’s two.