Chilima’s redemption, dispirited Msowoya, over-repentant Chapola
The refusal by People’s Party (PP) running mate, Sosten Gwengwe, to participate in the Comesa Hall debate—made more obvious by the empty podium where he should have been standing—is not without precedence.
Of course, the reasons for the withdrawals are diverse!
In the USA, president Lyndon Johnson refused to debate with senator Barry Goldwater in 1964. Johnson was leading in the polls and public speaking was not his forte.
Similarly, in 1968, Richard Nixon, who again contested the presidency with senator George McGovern, refused to debate.
Nixon was the front runner in the opinion polls and his non-participation might have been informed by his experience with John Kennedy in 1960.
The handsome and more charismatic John Kennedy won the televised debate while Nixon won an earlier radio one. Nixon was said to have appeared rather “shifty” on television and that contributed to his loss of the election.
The reasons for Gwengwe’s pullout are varied. They range from unsubstantiated accusations that the organiser, Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS), is using the debates to promote its preferred candidate to claims that PP does not believe that debates can influence voters in this election.
Whether there is merit in these assertions, only PP would attest.
The fact remains, though, that the audience in the Comesa Hall and those following the proceeds on various media were on Friday evening denied the opportunity of hearing the side of the sitting government on the themes of the day.
Whether this omission will show up in the outcome of the elections can only be speculative.
What is not speculative is that there were no signs in the Comesa Hall for the more than two hours of the debate that one of the three remaining panellists was being favoured.
The favours might be made elsewhere, if at all, but certainly not on this night!
During the debate, though, the absence of Gwengwe had opposite effects. It provided a free reign to one of the panellists to shine as an expert of detail or explainer-in-chief, a characteristic that the absentee displayed during the inaugural debate.
The withdrawal also removed the punching bag for another panellist who, by hitting it regularly in the first round of the debates, scored highly.
Saulos Chilima (DPP)
A bristling Chilima came out swinging with a spirited performance that at one point sparked electric exchanges with moderator Joab Frank Chakhaza.
Clearly arriving with a different game plan after his lacklustre performance two weeks ago and showing technical familiarity and ease with themes of the day, Chilima needed a reputation-redeeming night and he got it.
The immediate reaction to his previous showing was a torrent of criticism for delivering a flat, uninspired and detached performance on a night when Richard Msowoya of MCP surprised with an energetic, aggressive performance, never mind the sensationalism embedded in it.
In a thoroughly dominating performance, Chilima bested his opponents in tone, eloquence and substance. He understood his audience and targeted his words appropriately. His cool demeanour made him look presidential both in style and substance.
On this night, he turned out to be the DPP’s best messenger. His gift as a debater on this night was his ability to pitch complex policy arguments in clear and unambiguous language. His plain-spokenness was an asset which the other panellists lacked.
It remains to be seen how much Chilima can move the needle for DPP in this election. But on the performance on this night, it is clearly a positive to have him in the party’s corner.
He still needs, though, to cover acres in articulating issues away from his comfort zones. His mastery of explaining stuff, for instance, plunged on the Tanzania-Malawi border dispute where he simply had to harp on the tune of other panellists.
Richard Msowoya (MCP)
His display was subdued to someone who came expecting the short and fast-paced political combat that distinguished him in the first debate. There were no “zingers” designed to embarrass the other candidate or create a bumper-sticker moment.
The imbalance between the two performances is certain to provide at least a temporary bump for Msowoya. He did not have a good night.
A couple of things might have affected him. Unlike in Lilongwe where it was like speaking to the masses, which was easy for him as an experienced politician, the Blantyre audience largely comprised technocrats and opinion leaders who could only be swayed by detail, not rhetoric.
Apart from speaking generally around principles, he found it hard to demonstrate penetration on themes of the night that needed technical mettle to dissect.
If he did not mumble his answers, he stammered in some instances while attempting to connect an idea or put together a plausible thought.
A couple of times he could never complete his rambling answers within the time allotted such that the moderator had to interrupt him during nearly every answer.
The absence of PP running-mate Sosten Gwengwe seemed to have taken the snuffing out of this strategy. Many Malawian politicians love the euphoria that comes with hitting out at an opponent.
Most of the sound-bites that earned him high ratings in Lilongwe premised on lines against the PP administration or battering away at stray remarks of Gwengwe. With his punching bag out of his striking line, Msowoya looked dispirited.
But he is a good MCP running mate. He knows his party well. He has articulate understanding of its values and principles.
He marketed them convincingly in terms of how they have been rebranded to spearhead the party’s agenda and resonance with the people’s aspirations in the multiparty order.
Godfrey Chapola (UDF)
Just like other candidates who over-compensate for their earlier poor showings, there was a completely different Chapola this time around.
He clearly had some intensive coaching from his debate prep team and must have been acting under orders to change everything.
The problem is that the difference was so stark it was jarring. It can bring about a whiff of desperation. To compensate for his lack of ready answers, he, this time, brought written text.
He read it regularly even if the question sought different information. Even his concluding remarks ran for almost half a page.
On matters of substance, he kept muttering long-winded replies full of questionable facts. Later, he looked tired, angry and totally put off.
Often he attacked the moderator’s understanding of issues, or refused vehemently to explain how some of his policy principles would be implemented, only to continue talking in circles
Whether it’s a debate or simply an argument between friends, most bad performers unwittingly broadcast the fact that they are losing it through grave facial expressions, along with rambling, unsteady answers that never get anywhere.
Chapola exhibited both traits.
It should be stressed that Chapola is a weak public speaker. He cannot articulate persuasively and convincingly even what should be his strongest area: agriculture.
Often, he found himself at the end of a verbal cul-de-sac, seemingly unaware of how he had ended up there.
All that said, he got up off the mat and thoroughly white-washed his opponents on how to control maternal deaths and morbidity rates from his prepared notes.
Overall, the question that stands out is: Did PP miss an opportunity in withdrawing Gwengwe?
The answer can only come from Gwengwe’s empty podium.