Malawi held its first ever Vice-President or Presidential running mate debate on March 8th, 2014. The debate which was hosted by independent radio station Zodiak Broadcasting Station, was largely seen as a success. Millions of Malawians worldwide either tuned in to listen to the debate on the radio or watch the live stream online. The debate included the participation of all four major parties including the ruling People’s party (PP) Presidential running mate candidate, Sosten Gwengwe. Much of the country was excited at what was considered a positive political step in the country because it meant that major parties could share their manifestos, ideologies and visions to the country. The debate proved to be lively, engaging, entertaining and informative – it gave Malawians a chance to get to know the candidates and their parties better. At the close of the debate, many were looking forward to the second debate that was to be held two weeks later as well as the planned Presidential candidate debate.
While the rest of country was still micro-analyzing the first debate and reflecting on how far Malawi has come as a democracy, the party of the sitting government decided to pull out of participating in the follow up Presidential running mate debate. Many were disappointed at this decision. To add insult to injury, they also pulled out of the forthcoming Presidential debate which would have involved the participation of sitting head of state, President Joyce Banda. To make matters worse, their reason for pulling out were questionable – their spokesperson cited pulling out because they thought that the moderator in the previous debate was impartial and favored the other candidates – a reason that left many scratching their heads in confusion because much of the country considered the debate well-organized, unbiased and successful.
The second presidential running mate debate continued in the absence of the PP and it is likely that Presidential debate will do the same. The party should seriously reconsider this flawed decision. The move by the ruling PP can best be described as a political miscalculation for several reasons.
First, Since the majority of people seemed to think the debate was fair, their pulling out has led to speculations amongst Malawians there were perhaps, other reasons that they did not want to participate that were not articulated. Most notably, the unfolding and very serious ‘cash-gate’ scandal that has rocked this administration and has weakened Banda’s chances of re-election. It would have been a better political move for her party leaders to actually face the public about this scandal, head on. The decision of the party to not participate can be perceived by some almost an admission of guilt – the commonly shared sentiment being that an administration that has nothing to hide would surely face the public in the wake of controversy.
Second, it would have led the public to believe that both Banda and Gwengwe were actively dealing with this major issues in the country and are taking the nations concerns seriously. Whilst we all frown and cringe and frown upon political rhetoric, a simple “we are as outraged as you are but cannot comment on an on-going investigation right now” may have been a saving grace for her – at times, a little comfort or is needed by leadership to set the public at ease over what they perceive are perpetual bleeding government coffers. This would have worked to show more political savvi-ness on the part of the ruling party. It would have also helped to convince the public that Malawian people matter to this administration.
Third, addressing the issue of ‘cashgate’ in such a forum would have made it look like her administration was taking responsibility for the scandal that occurred under this administration – even if they did want to admit fault for it. It would have simply made them look more serious about what some consider the nation’s greatest political financial scandal.
Fourth, a presidential debate would have given a change for the President to show off her skills as an orator. Many Malawians and non-Malawians alike find President Banda to be a well-poised, articulate and engaging speaker. A Presidential debate would have given her a chance to really show off her oratory skills in the face of pressure which would have provided her much respect – she would be seen as a tough, fearless politician. Additionally, the party would not be perceived as being unable to debate due to fear of facing the public.
Fifth, the debates were a platform were the PP – which has been accused of having no clear agenda in the past – could clearly outline its vision for the country over the next few years for its own members and for undecided voters. Undecided voters that may have voted for the PP may now opt to vote for another party who was able to air their vision during this debate – it was followed by many potential voters and the absence of the ruling party has been speaking louder to potential voters than any political misspeak that may have occurred. It would also have reassured its own supporters that they were indeed with the right party. They are simply missing out on engaging a captive audience that wants to hear their message.
Sixth, the debates mark a series of first ever Presidential running mate and Presidential debates. The party is missing a chance to truly be a part of the nation’s history. It is also missing participation in an event that is perceived as a more serious attempt for Malawi’s leaders to engage with the public – a decision to pull out means that the so-called “People’s” party was effectively disengaging with the people. This is problematic for a party whose name suggests is a mouth piece for the people.
Lastly, the PP should have participated in the debate because it was a chance to show Malawians and the rest of the world that it was a party of change – that the party truly wanted to move the country forward politically by continuing to engage in multi-party political participation. The decision not to participate sent the opposite message signifying instead a return to the same old politics that Malawians have been trying to move away from. Perhaps, the PP is failing to see that the Malawian public is changing in the way it wants to see politics done in the country. Twenty years after the change to multi-party rule, the public is seeking more than business as usual from its politics. The public wants them to be accountable to the people that vote them in – it is now more common for politicians in Malawi to self-identify as public servants – a concept that did not feature in Malawian politics in the past. Therefore, failure to read the political mood of the country and their need for political engagement may further erode support for party.
Whilst it is important for all parties to participate in debates, it is most important that the ruling party participates. They play a great role in setting the tone for the elections in the country. As the sitting administration, they also need to defend their position and continued rule. A decision to not participate is like the reigning champions in a football (soccer) team wanting to participate in the World Cup yet, not wanting to participate in the World Cup qualifiers where the fans can see their skills and determine whether they are still the best team. All parties should participate in the debates, but for the sitting party, not participating should not have been an option. The campaign strategist or Public Relations strategist in the party may have made the party’s greatest blunder with such a recommendation.
Although the party cited that is would use other avenues to get their manifesto across, the decision of the ruling government to not participate in the Presidential debates is proving to be detrimental to them in the court of popular public opinion. Their non-participation should certainly be considered problematic to both their Malawian supporters and opponents. The presidential debates are one of the biggest platforms where politicians can meet on an equal playing field to discuss policy and the country’s future. Though the running mate debates are now over, the PP government still has a chance to redeem itself by reconsidering their decision because the Presidential debates have not occurred yet. It is not only in the interest of that party to do so, but also in the best interest of a nation eager to see their ruling government engage with them with regards to their vision for the country.