In just over two years’ time Malawians will be going to the polls. There are those whose vote is already decided. You know and they know who they will vote for. In other cases, you know and they know who they can never vote for. You find such people in the strongholds of the parties that still exist.
Away from these extremes, however, lies a huge chunk of people who need to be convinced or motivated to vote. These are the people that normally decide the election. They are the target of any campaign. Where a party or a candidate has limited resources there is very little sense in taking the campaign to people described in the opening paragraph.
If you exclude those who do not vote rationally, those who vote simply because they feel they have to vote for a particular party or candidate because of where they come from, there are two factors that determine one’s decision.
The first is hope. We have hope in that party or candidate to take us to our dreamland. They are the best on offer. The second motivation is rejection. We do not want a certain party or candidate. In this case, we do not always give much thought about the person we are voting for because the priority is to stop or get rid of a particular party or candidate.
If you look at our general election record, you will see that the latter motivation has dominated our voting. In 1994, over 60 percent rejected the Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda and his Malawi Congress Party. Yes, they voted for Bakili Muluzi and his United Democratic Front or Chakufwa Chihana and his Alliance for Democracy, but it was more to do with a hunger for change than an overwhelming vote of confidence in the new parties.
You could say the same of the 2004 and 2014 elections where the majority were bitter with the ruling party and spoke with their votes. Incidentally, in the case of 2004, the UDF still managed to sneak in despite the rejection because the majority was only united in rejecting the ruling party but there was no candidate or political party that reflected the hopes of Malawians and people resorted to tribal or regional affiliation.
What is exactly my point today? I actually see 2004 repeating itself in the next general election. As I pointed out last week, I do not think President Peter Mutharika and his Democratic Progressive Party have done anything to grow their political base three years into their second stint in power. It means that over 60 percent of Malawians are again likely not to vote blue.
That, however, does not necessarily translate into a loss for them in the elections and that is because the motivation will be rejection with no obvious alternative. Again we might see that rejection vote so segmented as to allow the DPP to continue in power. I have seen nothing from the opposition so far to inspire hope in Malawians, those who have a decision to make.
Unless some movement emerges like a whirlwind in the next 12 months, Dr Lazarus Chakwera and his Malawi Congress Party are the biggest challengers to DPP’s continued existence in government but even they have flattered to deceive. Apart from the odd press conference and statement, what has the party done to convince an undecided voter that it is the hope that Malawians want?
There is nothing wrong with press conferences or press statements, by the way. But when that is all you are doing and the contents of those events are more about the doom and gloom of today than about the glory and bliss of tomorrow, you cannot cover any significant ground in winning over undecided voters.
For all his indiscretions and gaffes, Donald Trump has a lot to teach our opposition. An opposition does not always have to be reactionary – waiting for government to do something wrong, gauge what the public is saying and gather these emotions in a statement to be aired in Parliament, at a press conference or in a public statement. That does not have a lasting impression.
Trump knew the blocks I described in the opening paragraphs. He identified a constituency that needed to be energised to vote and the issues that would resonate with that group. The issues may not have been politically correct but they were real. He connected with those people, most of whom came from the swing states that normally decide who should occupy the White House and voila! The establishment, including the top leadership of his own party, was stunned when he emerged victorious.
An opposition party must have a clear message on what it stands for and this must the rallying call in all its interventions. If it is reacting to delayed payment of salaries for civil servants, it must link it to that message, if it is reacting to an empty state of the nation address, it must connect that to its message. If it is reacting to maizegate it must relate the reaction to that core message.
If the MCP has such a message, it must be doing a bad job of getting it out because I am yet to hear it. Yes Mutharika looks indecisive. Yes, Mutharika does not look inspiring. Yes, Mutharika has made many mistakes. But tell me what Chakwera has done to show that he is decisive? What is inspiring about him beyond the eloquence of an accomplished orator? Indeed, what about him would make one say, “I can’t wait to see that man at Kamuzu Palace”?
A leader who inspires hope must be able to break the barriers created by religion, ethnicity and any other demographic factor. Only once have we had that type of leader going into an election. That was in 2009. The late Bingu wa Mutharika remains the only leader that won an election in Malawi more because of the hope he inspired than the rejection of his opponents.
I follow goings on in the MCP from afar and I see very little effort to reach out to people beyond its known base. This is the same base that has failed to take it over the line in four elections and it is not considered wise to do the same thing over and over expecting a different outcome. The party’s failure to get out of its comfort zone and explore potential hunting grounds – which actually exist – may be its undoing yet again.
And the starting point in its quest to grow its base is to show the leadership that this country so badly needs. When I give leadership workshops to various groups I always talk of alternative leaders or unelected leaders. People without positions but with lots of influence on the people. The church has taken that role in this country, but that is the gap that should have been filled by the opposition.
If I have not mentioned any opposition party other than the MCP it is because it is the only party with a chance to give the DPP a real run for its money. The UDF looks set to continue with steady decline and the People’s Party may disappear faster than it appeared. As for the others, eish!