Swimming against the tide of perception

apmHow time flies! It seems like just a few months ago when we endured the drama of a near political standstill that ended with the late Maxon Mbendera’s teary announcement of the May 2014 tripartite elections results. Five years looked like eternity then, but here we are in the second half of that term! I dare say there could have been no more polarising figure than President Peter Mutharika.

I mean, there is no middle ground when assessing his rule. Depending on your inclinations or interests, he has either done a stellar job or he has been an unqualified disaster. Listening to the takes of the opposing camps it is difficult to believe the people are talking about the same person or indeed the same country.

One thing that is indisputable, however, is that for a man that came to power with a minority victory that saw almost two-thirds of the electorate rejecting him – nay, that is too negative. Okay, for a man that claimed victory in an election where the majority preferred other candidates, President Mutharika has done very little in the first half of his term to win over his detractors.

His departed brother the late Bingu wa Mutharika, on whose largely more successful record he rode to State House, came to power under similarly underwhelming circumstances, but right from his inaugural address he embarked on a spirited drive to convert sceptics into disciples and that culminated into an unprecedented majority victory in the next election.

President Peter Mutharika, on the other hand, finds himself hoping for another scrappy win facilitated by a disjointed opposition and propelled by a relatively solid power base founded on strong ethnic loyalty and cult solidarity. He exudes the indifference of someone who was thrust into the limelight more by circumstances than personal ambition and will.

Now, all this could be unfair. We could have in Kamuzu Palace a man who works overnight to take this country out of its never ending problems. But in politics, as in life generally, perception is reality and that reality determines a people’s attitude to a person or situation. Does President Mutharika bother about public perception of his commitment to his duties and responsibilities? The signs are not encouraging.

One of the major criticisms of his candidacy for president was that he is too cold and indecisive for public office, especially of such eminence. His silence during the standoff between the Council of the University of Malawi and its lecturers following the questioning of one of their own by the then Police Inspector General over his remarks in the line of duty was roundly criticised and used against him.

As president, he has only reinforced that perception because where some people have expected him to speak out, he has only offered silence. Where those people have expected action, the President has only afforded inertia. Where some citizens have expected the promised business unusual, State House has only managed more of the same.

Which brings me to my next point. The DPP manifesto for the 2014 tripartite elections was one of the best on offer. The underlying theme was business unusual and while we have seen some positive changes under the Public Sector Reforms initiative, the party has reneged on some of the key and fundamental commitments in that blueprint.

One such commitment was to reduce presidential powers, but once he tasted the sweetness of those powers Mutharika openly said he would veto any bill that attempted to implement his own party’s pledge to Malawians. The party also promised to make public institutions like Malawi Broadcasting Corporation and the Anti Corruption Bureau independent but political expediency has made it impossible for the President to make good of this.

Instead, MBC continues to be the joke that even government operatives do not rely on as it remains the platform for sycophants who compete for positions in the country’s hall of shame. The ACB, meanwhile, attracts ridicule all the time because government has failed to create an environment that would allow professionals in the institutions to perform as they know they should.

As a result, public disaffection with the ruling elite has continued to grow and the perception that corruption is getting more entrenched has soared considerably to such an extent that the infamous maizegate and the subsequent firing of George Chaponda as Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development has changed the whole DPP narrative.

The party returned to power ostensibly to clean the mess that was Cashgate under the People’s Party rule. What is interesting is that while the PP leadership paid for that massive plunder of public resources, no senior politician of that regime has todate been directly implicated in the looting of money. It is civil servants and business persons that have so far been tried and convicted.

Now, with a senior cabinet minister, who happens to be the party’s vice president, being found with stashes of cash in the midst of another apparent scandal, does the DPP still have the moral higher ground to talk about Cashgate? Mind you, I am by no means suggesting that the former minister is guilty because that is the domain of the courts. But I talked about perception, and public opinion does not follow rules of natural justice. Unfortunately, it counts in politics.

You would think that with the picture I have painted so far, the next general elections should be easy pickings for the opposition. But alas! Which opposition? Let us talk about that next Wednesday.

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