There was an interesting ‘Special Report’ aired on the multi award-winning Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS) last week.
In the report, Pilirani Phiri did not just propose names of potential running mates that presidential candidates of the four major parties—DPP, MCP, UDF and PP—could consider. He also analysed how some of the proposed names were closer to choice than others.
But what baffled me, to be frank, was how Phiri solely used regionalism as a factor for establishing how some names he proposed were closer to choice than others.
I am not writing to respond to Phiri’s report. No. Rather—using Phiri’s case and also because there are a lot of Malawians who feel that way—I want to air my views on the connection between regionalism and voter choice in Malawi.
I understand that voting in Malawi is more an act of identity expression than a careful weighing of policy positions or performance evaluations of candidates.
Frankly speaking, if voting were a careful evaluation of candidates’ performance, could Bakili Muluzi and Bingu wa Mutharika have been voted into office in 1994 and 2004 respectively?
Muluzi had a disturbing history of ‘corruption’ while in MCP and Mutharika carried an embarrassing record of being fired for ‘mismanagement’ and ‘lack of vision’ as secretary general of the Common Market for Eastern Southern Africa (Comesa).
Surely, and I should repeat that in Malawi voting is more an act of identity expression than a careful performance evaluation of candidates.
There is empirical data to show that regionalism—a critical base for identity expression in voting—was really a strong factor for choice during the 1994 general elections.
Aford leader the late Chakufwa Chihana came third after scooping over 85 percent of votes from the North against eight percent from the Centre and seven percent from the South.
MCP’s Kamuzu Banda came second after getting 70 percent of the votes from Central Region against 16 percent from the South and nine percent from the North.
Bakili Muluzi got UDF into power after collecting 75 percent of votes from the most populous Southern Region against 23 percent in the Centre and seven percent in the North.
It follows then that the voting trend of the 1994 general elections raised deep concerns about emerging regionalism and national disunity.
Although these concerns grew with the 1999 general elections, some remarkable change was observable. For instance, When Aford joined an electoral coalition with MCP, 89 percent of Northern voters supported the marriage. At the same time, however, Aford’s representation in Parliament dropped from all the region’s 36 seats in 1994 to getting only 27 in 1999.
The coalitions’ candidate, Gwanda Chakuamba, who had been Banda’s running mate in 1994, received 62 percent of the Central Region vote—a drop from 70 percent in 1994. UDF, on the other hand, maintained its hold on the Southern Region: their percentage grew from 78 in 1994 to 79 in 1999.
However, the results of the 2004 elections revealed deep cracks in the philosophy of associating a particular party with a region. The realities were that more parties had been born while others had fragmented, wilted away or absorbed by newcomers.
For instance, although it won the presidency, UDF’s share of the vote declined from 78 percent in 1999 to 53 percent in 2004. Entrance of an independent southern candidate, Brown Mpinganjira, who was able to attract 15 percent of the vote, could also explain the change.
In addition, Chakuamba, who had been MCP’s candidate in the 1999 elections, but is from the South, ran as the candidate for the Mgwirizano Coalition and succeeded in capturing 24 percent of the Southern Region vote, relying heavily on Chikhwawa, Nsanje and Blantyre.
Aford’s Northern Region identity was challenged after it partnered with UDF as its representation in Parliament dropped from 29 in 1999 to two. The region again heavily supported Mgwirizano Coalition more than the UDF-Aford coalition.
The 2009 elections were almost a nail on the coffin of the associating a particular party with a region. The emergence of DPP in 2005 and how it governed leading to the 2009 elections, helped to solidify its credentials as truly national parties. The landslide the party won after the elections showed the party had made remarkable in-roads in the Central and Northern regions, once considered the strongholds of other parties.
Today, with People’s Party (PP) on the block as the ruling party, which grouping among PP, UDF and DPP can claim to be a giant of the Southern Region?
The same can be said with the Central Region, which is said to be MCP’s base, but 2009 elections show a drastic reduction of the party’s parliamentary reduction.
Not only that.
The DPP managed to get in-roads into the region, winning 14 parliamentary seats in traditional MCP districts and, if truth be told, all is not lost. PP, as a ruling party, has managed to have influential people in Dedza, Kasungu, Ntcheu, Salima and Nkhota-Kota who can sell the party to thousands. The populous Lilongwe, especially the urban area, is full of the elite who barely vote based on issues. So can MCP, in its full sense, really claim to dominate the region as it did during the 1994 elections?
I can’t talk of the Northern Region. It is a volatile multi-ethnic province which, apart from the rest, votes, often, as a block, and sometimes not on regional and ethnic identities. It voted for Chakuamba in 2004 and Mutharika in 2009.
So, what I am trying to say?
The point is: it is foolhardy, today, to invoke regional identity as a factor for Malawians’ political choice. This, however, does not suggest that voting in Malawi has now become an act of careful weighing of policy positions or performance evaluations of candidates. Far from it!
What I have observed, over the years, is that Malawians, today, are politically aligning themselves more into ethnic than regional identities. Regionalism, as a factor of political identity, is dead.
So if I were a presidential candidate struggling to find a running mate to help in winning elections and governing a country, I would not waste time looking at regionalism as a factor. I would look for somebody who, first, has leadership quality and, second, commands the respect and love of a particular populous ethnic block.