By Richard Chirombo
NOTE: This is flashback, and some of the people mentioned in this piece have since changed positions. People like David Bandawa, for instance; they are no longer with the Malawi Electoral Commission. The reason I have posted it here is purely archivical. But the points stand valid today, looking at the way Malawi's State-run media behave during electoral campaigns.
Times come when, like El Nino winds that elude the meteorologists’ charts, the breezes of history unexpectedly accelerate and blow away the touchstones by which a people live.
It happened twice or thrice during the past century. In 1914, when the Reverend John Chilembwe staged a surprise uprising against Thangata system (bonded labour); between 1940 and 1964 when Malawians (Nyasas) got tired of their emotional moorings to colonial authorities and wanted independence. It ended in 1993 when people voted for multiparty democracy during a national referendum and for change during subsequent presidential and parliamentary elections in 1994.
The last episode was true of the post-independence African character of the 1990s, when authority got deconstructed from institutions to individuals and that, now freed from official restraint, people felt liberated enough to choose everything, including national leaders, for themselves.
Malawians have, since 1994 when they transformed their political landscape to a magnitude that signals nothing less than a fundamental mutation in the national character, voted for Members of Parliament (MPs) and a Head of State every five years.
On May19, 2009, Malawians voted again, signaling the fourth turn of democratic elections. This followed similar elections in 1994, 1999 and 2004, each process a new national experiment.
It thus becomes imperative, as is always the case with all human experiments, to ask the big questions: Where have we scored highly? What have been the challenges? In that order, not forgetting opportunities that exist and the way forward.
Running away from such questions could be tantamount to running away from future responsibility- a future as nearer as 2014 when Malawians go to the polls again, says political commentator Nandini Patel. She is one the first people to note that the country’s four elections have proved too predictable in other aspects and difficult to comprehend in other cases.
They (elections) have been predictable in terms of regional voting patterns and ruling parties’ conduct over state-run media; and difficult to comprehend when it comes to the issue of independents and how president Bingu wa Mutharika won over 60 per cent of the vote in 2009.
“Look at the elections in 1994, for instance. People voted on regional lines. This is evident in the fact that the eventual presidential winner, (United Democratic Front’s) Bakili Muluzi, got 42.2 per cent (South), Kamuzu Banda 33.5 per cent from his Central region stronghold and Chakufwa Chihana ( Alliance for Democracy) with 18.9 per cent, mainly from the Northern region.
“This was almost repeated in 1999 when Muluzi got 51.37 per cent in the South, the Malawi Congress Party/Alliance for Democracy coalition 44.30 per cent in the Central and Northern region, respectively, and Kamlepo Kalua who got 1.43per cent of the national vote,” said Patel, a lecture at the Catholic University in Chiradzulu.
The scene was repeated in 2004, when UDF presidential candidate Bingu wa Mutharika chalked 35.89 per cent in the South, Malawi Congress Party’s (MCP) John Tembo 27.13 per cent and Gwanda Chakuamba of the Mgwirizano Coalition 25.72 per cent.
It was as if every new elections were a reinstatement of the saying that old habits die hard. But Patel says this was something that was doomed to change, anyway, though she acknowledges having doubted Afrobarometer’s opinion poll findings that pegged DPP’s Mutharika at over 60 per cent.
Patel looks at DPP and the way it plans to sustain its majority numbers in parliament after the 2014, 2019 and 2024 parliamentary elections as some of the yet-to-come trends people may not comprehend now. Time will unfold all things and decide whether the DPP treads the same decline paths as those parties before it: UDF and MCP.
The past four elections have had there fair of surprises, renditions, revisions, opportunities and challenges- only that some of the challenges refuse to go with the times, says Patel, pointing at the issue of state-run media during campaign.
David Bandawe, Chief Elections Officer (CEO) at the Electoral Commission (EC), acknowledges that every election has been a new experience, with its own challenges and opportunities. This is something he came to appreciate more just recently.
Bandawe has a friend at the Parachute Battalion, those patriotic guys who jump from the air for the sake of their beloved nation. The two happened to talk about jumping from the air during their most recent meeting when the man in uniform alluded something to the fact that ‘every jump is a new jump’, according to the EC CEO.
“So, too, are elections. Each and every election is a new experience, with unique challenges and opportunities. That is the reason we, at EC, are always trying to improve things,” says Bandawe.
EC has, in this respect, organized a meeting aimed at reviewing all independent electoral observers’ reports pertaining to the May19 elections; a development Chairperson Anastasia Msosa says will help solve some of the challenges.
The most outstanding challenge is the perceived abuse of state run media by those in power, observers say. But this is a challenge faced by political parties; EC, too, faces its own music.
Some of its challenges include increasing complaints from political parties, the legal environment in which the electoral body operates, budgeting constraints, complex processes leading to voter registration and voters roll verification, transportation hitches as well as registration periods corroding with the farming season or rains.
This notwithstanding, opposition political parties are, however, riled by the conduct of the electoral body. The EC appreciates the challenges, yes- charges Aford’s Secretary General Khwauli Msiska, who happens to be the party’s sole parliamentarian (Karonga Nyungwe constituency)- but what is it doing to address them?
Msiska said Mutharika’s high approval ratings at the ballot could be attributed to the public media which he accuses of over-blowing the president’s ‘obsequious’ charm, evasive assurances and elastic treatment of facts. He also thinks that ruling party cadres never told fibs exactly but made pronouncements that narrowed the isthmus between truth and expediency so that wishes were presented as action while mere reasoning became interchangeable with fact.
“That is the power of propaganda. A lie, repeated many times, becomes truth; this is the role state-run media played during campaign,” says Msiska.
Sentiments shared by Republican Party president Stanley Masauli He is ruthless in his verdict of the polls, something he says is derived from the way Malawi Broadcasting Corporation and Malawi Television behaved in the run up to the polls.
“These institutions violated the EC’s Code of Conduct and went away with it. So, I question: Were the elections free? Yes. (Were they) Fair? A big no. Credible? May be,” the voice of a man who fought hard to get his deregistered party (RP) back but failed to get his worth at the ballot.
The conduct of MBC and TVM could be the reason, perhaps, why MCP spokesperson Nancy Tembo insists that the opposition dominated parliament of the past five years could have been right, anyway, to deny TVM and MBC funding (not in the negative sense).
“I see nothing wrong with that,” said Tembo at a review meeting of the elections in Blantyre . “In fact, I think that the decision has helped the two institutions become self reliant. They can do without any funding even now,” said Tembo.
Accusations of TVM/MBC perceived bias during the polls have not gone down well with DPP spokesperson, Hetherwick Ntaba. He says, though the opposition seems to blame the ruling party for every Sparrow that falls from the sky, the fact is that it is the magnetic personality and policies of Mutharika that turned him into a common denominator and visible agent of the convulsions that have transformed Malawi’s social-economic status for the past five years.
He says this is the reason people voted for Mutharika, and not because of the influence of state run media. He, however, says he finds it ironic that the same opposition that denied the two institutions funding could now stand on mountains and accuse them of not airing out their views.
“It is hypocritical. Let me also clear this myth that MBC and TVM are the only channels of campaign information; we have many other radio stations, most of whom did not give us an inch during campaign period,” says Ntaba, pointing at Joy FM.
All Rafiq Hajat, Executive Director for the Institute for Policy Interaction, does is laugh at both the opposition and ruling party.
“The opposition were in majority for the past five years but never amended the Communications Act thinking they would go into government on May19, 2009. The DPP is now in majority but will do nothing to change the Act, I tell you. The short of it is that the opposition is now crying over spilt milk and the DPP will one day cry. Isn’t that a good joke!?”