The battle for Parliament has started. Who goes back? The arithmetic is not promising. What about the mood?
Blantyre, with 13 constituencies, offers a practical lesson for members of Parliament. Out of 13 MPs between 1999 and 2004, only one returned to Parliament in 2004.
He is Henry Phoya, MP for Blantyre Rural East. The rest—Fidson Chisesele, Peter Chupa, Nicholas Kachingwe, Masten Kanje, Samuel Kaphuka, Henderson Mabeti, Elwin Maluwa, Paul Maulidi, Lee Mlanga, Isaac Ndoka, Yakub Osman and Jan Sonkie—didn’t make it. They failed in party primaries or in elections or didn’t contest at all.
Now a year before elections, MPs are strategising. Parliamentarian for Blantyre City South East, Billy Kaunda will contest in Mzimba next year. Yes, Mzimba, not Blantyre.
Kaunda told The Nation in April this year that he planned to be MP for his Blantyre constituency for one term and when people of his home in Mzimba heard this, they invited him to be their representative. "They said they have the votes," said Kaunda of Mzimba West constituents. "But they do not have the [right person] to cast them for."
When did Kaunda decide to serve one term in Blantyre? Why? The deputy minister of tourism, is clever enough not to comment on the issue anymore.
But that does not stop people from speculating. Kaunda—and this is speculation only—may have studied the elections he won in 2004 and concluded that both the arithmetic and the mood in Blantyre City may not be in favour of a second term. This, in a way, is being wise because there are those who will contest again knowing they cannot win.
The one term pattern may mean that voters are assessing MPs and hiring and firing them on merit. It may also indicate that people can gang up against a sitting MP, just because he or she belongs to a different camp, even in the same party.
But most importantly, the Recall Provision, which some activists want back in the Constitution, is not that important for two reasons. One, voters are able to assess their representatives, fire and hire on merit; and, two, the section, like Section 65, may complicate Parliament in a country where envy is the greatest enemy.
Blantyre was not the only district to display the one term pattern. Chitipa, too, fired all its MPs who represented the district between 1999 and 2004. Peter Chiwona, Webster Kameme, Manifesto Kayira, Chipimpha Mughogho and Kingsley Ng’ambi—all didn’t make it back to Parliament in 2004.
This trend was visible in the North and the South. Alliance for Democracy (Aford) and the United Democratic Front (UDF) suffered heavy losses in 2004. Aford produced six MPs while UDF had 49. Mangochi, with 12 constituencies, produced eight independent MPs, the highest rate in the country.
The Centre is a place that least changes MPs and does not necessarily produce independent MPs. This could be for two reasons, says Bonface Dulani, a political scientist at Chancellor College.
One, the MCP is democratic enough to allow people choose the candidates they want unlike in the South where the UDF imposed candidates and lost heavily in its stronghold areas of Mangochi and Machinga. Two, the people just love MCP.
"The loss suffered by the UDF was reflective of the process of selecting candidates," says Dulani, a Ph D candidate at Michigan State University, now in the country for a couple of months.
The people who won as independent candidates were not independent as such, they were UDF but frustrated with party primaries that in some cases were not as democratic as is expected. The constituency of Zomba Ntonya where independent candidate Berson Lijenda beat Bernad Chisale, then a Cabinet minister, is just one example.
The UDF made in-roads into the central region in the 1999 elections when it came out the strongest party in Parliament. "People," says Dulani, "were beginning to challenge the authority of the MCP."
But the UDF, like Aford, lost track and relaxed its democratic principles and went on to impose candidates in the 2004 parliamentary elections. The reason, therefore, people voted for MCP MPs was not within the party only, but also in other parties: that they imposed candidates and people went for the MCP which had given them power to choose candidates, not absolute power, but more power than other parties.
It may also be that the central is just hooked to MCP and can’t divorce the party. What are factors that people use to vote for candidates? The MCP might be strong in the central but there are individuals who were voted out of the party.
"The electorate are getting to appreciate the value of their vote. They are holding the MPs and parties to account. If they don’t do a good job, they are voted out," says Dulani, adding that this is good for the country’s democracy because it makes the Recall Provision irrelevant.
So, who goes back to Parliament in next year’s elections? It is difficult to tell because prediction in any field is a puzzle.
But there are places that can be trusted to maintain their MPs. Phalombe district is one of them. The district uses its votes wisely, voting out nonperformers and getting in performers. If John Joswa, Anna Kachikho, Ken Lipenga, Felton Muli and Bonface Chilomo have performed, they will return to Parliament. If they haven’t, they are on their way out.
This is so because people are voting for individuals, not parties. This, too, is the reason people of Mangochi voted for independent candidates who were not independent in all senses but were UDF. It shows people vote for individuals not parties, and this puts into question the theoretical framework of Section 65.
Surprisingly, every MP believes they will go back to Parliament. But the truth is that not all of them will go back to Lilongwe next year.
Money will play a minor role as it did in 2004. Merit will be the biggest need and people are looking for development conscious MPs. People are looking for MPs who put Malawi first, not parties first.
The party that fields the best candidates will carry the day and best is by people’s definition. Blantyre will, again, be the district to watch.
In fact, Phoya will be the man to watch. Will he return to Parliament, again?