Playing the Ethnic Card? The political game in Malawi
The good (but not so new) news from Malawian politics is that some of the democratic basics are in place, making the somewhat impaired democracy keep stumbling on, 20 years into multipartyism. Twice the incumbent president has stepped down after loosing elections (last time last year); the Supreme Court is quite independent and strong (it even stopped one president from seeking an unconstitutional third term), and voters are punishing non-performers (which results in a very high turnover in parliament, as most MPs are deemed to be non-performers!). There were even elections for local councils last year, possibly paving the way for some democracy from below (eventually, with time).
The not so good news is that the country in the last elections voted along regional, religious and ethnic lines, to a very high degree. The country is now divided into the PP dominated North, the MCP Centre, the DPP South, and the UDF dominated East.
Below: The regional distribution of votes of the 2014 elections in Malawi; with parliamentary results to the left and local elections to the right. The latter is showing even more clearly the regional strongholds of the four parties.
Each of the four major parties has a strong regional home-turf but few inroads into other regions. And the regions are culturally distinct; historically, ethnically, and religiously. In fact, this regionalisation came immediately after multipartyism was introduced in 1994, it held sway for a few elections, then diminished somewhat in the 2009 elections which was a landslide for president “Bingu”, but has now, obviously, regained prominence.
“Tribalism” is how it is explained by Malawians, a term not so easily used in political science any longer, at least not since the 1960s. At the core of this “tribalism” is a very strong proclivity of Malawians to vote for their “son of the soil” (and in a few cases, a “daughter”). It is almost impossible to stand for parliamentary elections in Malawi, and win, if you are not born and bred in the local community. Quite a number of candidates have tried, but failed. Tribalism is to vote for your local man and consequently for your co-ethnic or co-religious.
But beyond that? This voting preference does not really explain how each party can win almost all its votes mainly in one region. Why are there no cross-regional parties, and why do they not all come up with some “sons-of-the-soil”?
We are struggling with this “why” question, when talking to different Malawians who are more than willing to talk, discuss, and reflect upon this along with us. Tribalism is something everybody can see, and it is discussed in the open. The PP is believed to have favoured the North, the MCP is “in the blood” of the Chewas of the Centre, the DPP is in full control of the Lomwe-belt in the South, and the UDF (once a much bigger party) has retreated into and is now inseparable from the Muslim minority in the East.
But where is this cultural identification with the political parties coming from? At the top-level of politics, the “discourse” is purely national; no candidate is visibly playing out the ethnic card. Everyone is a “better leader of the nation” than any other candidate.
For one thing, the political game is all personality-centred, without any visible ideological differences, no left-right cleavage in sight, no diverging issue standpoints or programmatic declarations. In fact, this lack of political differences opens up for identity politics. The majoritarian electoral system also favours personalities more than parties.
Thus, people know and identify the party leaders by where they come from, by who they are. And the four party leaders are “sons of the soil” of each of the four districts (with the exception of Joice, but she is married to a prominent man from the North, and that is good enough for her to be considered one of “theirs”). Besides, the party vice president and bulk of the party leadership is also, generally, from the same region, making the party easily identifiable with the region.
But down below is where the identity politics really comes alive: in the depth of local political campaigns and rallies. Personalities matter, and what matters the most is who you are and where you come from (that is, that you are from here, that you are one of us, that you are not one of the others). It is for instance necessary to be a Northerner who knows the hardships and the marginalisation of the North, or a Muslim who know the Muslims of the East, etc. This is not only highly appreciated; it is actually a necessary quality to be elected. Besides, some visible symbolic infrastructure projects made in the area when “we” are in government also helps, along with a number of promotions and nomination of people from “our area” and other tangible or perceived preferences.
Unfortunately, the resurging regionalism is an indicator of the underdevelopment of Malawi’s democracy. It emasculates the real political problems, which is a lack of consistent development policies; an enormous distance between the rulers and the ruled (between the “haves” and the “have nots”); and a profound lack of political accountability in-between elections.
Candidates rush into local communities, make campaigns and promises, secure the votes with their messages of “I am your man” and “you shouldn’t trust someone not from here”; and they disappear for the next five years. When the five years are gone, they come back but are frequently turned down (the turnover of MPs is particularly high in Malawi), but they are only replaced with another “son of the soil” from the same party, or by an independent candidate who tend to join the party afterwards.
Greetings from rainy Malawi
Inge Amundsen (CMI) and Gift Sambo (PAS)
Lilongwe, 4 February, 2015