The Role of Malawi’s Political Parties: Influential or Insignificant?

The candidate nomination papers for Malawi’s next tripartite elections have officially been completed.  The elections, which are scheduled to be held on May 20, 2014 will include the Presidential, Parliamentary, and local elections.  Presidential candidates include, incumbent Joyce Banda, of the People’s Party, Peter Mutharika of the Democratic Progressive Party, Atupele Muzuli of the United Democratic Front, and Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party. 

Although Malawi held its first multi-party elections in 1961, Hastings Banda proclaimed Malawi a one-party state in 1966.  He eventually adopted the title of ‘President for Life,’ and ruled until 1994.  Banda’s leadership began to be comprised during the 1990’s with the, ‘third wave of democratization,’ that was occurring across the continent.  In 1993, there was a referendum in which the people of Malawi showed their strong support for the return of multi-party elections.  Since this referendum, the country has witnessed the emergence of numerous political parties.

Given Malawi’s long history of one-party rule, it is interesting to consider the nature and influence of the country’s political parties in the context of these upcoming elections.  As is the case in many sub-Saharan African countries political parties tend to face internal weaknesses, and can sometimes serve to represent a personality rather than sound policies.  In a recent article published by the Nyasa Times (see first link), the author expresses the opinion that when it comes to the 2014 Presidential candidates, there isn’t a lot of distinction between their policy approaches.  However, the author goes on to confirm that in Malawi voters support individuals, not necessarily the political party they represent.   

The Afrobarometer issued a recent report regarding the opinions of Malawians in regards to political parties (see second link).  The primary purpose of the survey was to gain insight into the influence of political parties and their role in processes of democratic consolidation.  Topics included in the survey ranged from the amount of trust the respondent had in political parties, to the amount of contact they maintained with party officials.  The survey concluded a relatively low level of trust in terms of how the respondents view political parties, in addition, low levels of contact between the people and candidates calls into question a candidate’s ability to genuinely represent the wants and needs of its constituents. 

The internal dynamics of Malawi’s political parties, and their ability to gain the population’s trust and adequately represent their interests is not something that can be accomplished overnight.  However, as the populations of sub-Saharan Africa’s evolving democracies become more educated and engaged in the democratic process, individual leaders as well as the political parties that sustain them will be forced to start answering the calls of their citizens.  Rather than focusing on state capture, political parties must consider adopting and implementing policies that lead to effective state reform and ultimately help them, “recapture their relevance”(13).

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2 Responses to The Role of Malawi’s Political Parties: Influential or Insignificant?

  1. mjfarah says:

    Insightful and thought-provoking piece leading up to the 2014 Presidential elections.

    I was particularly interested in the findings in the Nyasa Times about the voting patterns of individuals in Malawi and how the Afrobarometer report seemed to verify the patterns. It makes sense that if citizens vote for candidates that are ethnically or ideologically aligned to their beliefs that the effectiveness and legitimacy of political parties gets undermined.

  2. sorensond says:

    This was an interesting and timely post. It seems that this is not an issue that is confined to Malawi, but is actually fairly prevalent in Africa. In too many cases, including Malawi, political parties revolve around personalities rather than substantive issue based platforms. I wonder, however, if one key to resolving this issue might be time, as political parties in other countries have had more time to develop. It is easy to forget that political parties in other places often had problems with political patronage for extensive periods of time (i.e. Tammany Hall in New York was a notorious political machine in the United States and often resorted to ethnic politics). Perhaps repeated electoral processes will begin to break down patronage networks as voters begin demanding more substantive results from their governments.

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