Dr Blessings Chinsinga on presidents, plots, and political vision in Malawi.

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The last year has been an eventful one in Malawi. In this interview, Dr Blessings Chinsinga gives us his views on the political and economic landscape of the country, critiquing Joyce Banda’s lack of vision in leadership and exploring her prospects at the polls in 2014.

Since Joyce Banda became President on 7th April 2012 – almost a year ago – what have been the most promising and most worrying developments in Malawi?

The fact that there was change of leadership in itself was quite a breath of fresh air. By April 2012, the country was headed for a complete meltdown on both political, economic and social fronts. That said, I would argue that the most promising development has been our ability to enjoy freedom and liberty without undue state censure. This was underlined by Joyce Banda’s quick move to repeal a series of bad laws that Mutharika’s administration had put in place to entrench itself in power and pave the way for his brother to succeed him. These laws had a suffocating grip on Malawians’ ability to enjoy the basic freedoms and liberties duly provided for in the constitution. This is about it.
If truth be told, the country is in a state of flux because of the apparent lack of strategic direction from its leadership. Joyce Banda has not really taken the time to think through what exactly she wants to do for the nation. As such, she has just taken on advice from the West without critically reflecting on it and customizing it to the specificities of the Malawian context. To be fair, she has had limited choices but nonetheless she should have demonstrated that she is in control and knows exactly what she wants to achieve. The situation has been complicated by the fact that she has failed to ensure a decisive break from ‘politics as usual’. In fact, perhaps because she is very much concerned with retaining power in the forthcoming polls in 2014, she is practicing ‘big tent’ politics and taking on board even those who were behind some of the terrible policies in Mutharika’s administration.

When Joyce Banda became President, Malawi once again saw a large number of MPs crossing the floor to the new president’s party. How does floor-crossing affect the development of political parties in Malawi and, therefore, its democracy?

This is a huge setback to political party development in Malawi. And since political parties are the most critical agent for democratic transformation, a deep-seated culture of floor crossing greatly undermines the prospects for the development of a viable democracy in Malawi. This is, however, not surprising: It very much reflects the nature of our political culture which is characterized by opportunism, patronage, clientelism and corruption. Malawi’s political culture has contributed to the emergence of political parties that are not deeply grounded in ideology. Instead, they are simply a loose collection of individuals, often formed as splinter groups from existing political parties with the primary idea of capturing state power, particularly the keys to the national economy. This is why our political leaders can change parties three times in a day without any sense of shame or remorse: The parties do not mean anything to them apart from as vehicles for scrambling to state power once in every five years.

Joyce Banda has come under a lot of pressure for her handling of the economy: will she be able to garner electoral support for her policies in the run-up to 2014?

This is her weakest point. There is no doubt that the economy needed to be subjected to the IMF shock therapy but she needed to ensure that the adverse consequences of this were properly managed, and the burden of the sacrifices equally shared among all segments of society. There was initially a groundswell of good will towards her policies but that is quickly evaporating due to the fact that she appears to be clueless about how to contain the adverse consequences of the reforms on the populace and her government officials seem to have failed to share the burden of the austerity measures. The weakest point about her, where these economic reforms are concerned, is that she is unable to project them as her reforms rather than what she has been told to do by Western donors in order to get the economy moving back again. Her failure to project herself as being in control could hurt her electoral chances, but that will all depend on how she frames her campaign narrative in the next few months.

The Inquiry into the Death of of Late President Mutharika, and its repercussions, has been hitting the world’s headlines in the last month. How has Joyce Banda’s decision to arrest 11 members of her Cabinet and the former administration been perceived in Malawi?

The opinion is divided. To most followers of Mutharika’s party, the arrests are seen as being politically motivated in that they are meant to undermine the party’s prospects of returning back to the helm of government in 2014. The party has been somewhat energized by the fact that its rallies in recent times have been well patronized and a recent poll, although crude, put its leader as a front runner in next year’s polls. This explains why the party’s faithfuls reacted to the arrests by staging violent protests in the cities of Lilongwe and Blantyre. Some people, mostly professionals, have applauded Banda for effecting the arrests, seeing it as a necessary step to ensuring that a culture of rule of law is established in Malawi. They argue that it will set a very good precedent going forward, arguing that had the plan succeeded to sabotage Banda’s ascendancy to power, the country would have been plunged into disorder and anarchy.

Malawi’s presidents have a long history of arresting their political opponents. On the other hand, these arrests have rarely lead to prosecution. Do you have any thoughts on how this particular situation might play out in the coming months? What will the likely implications be for the road to the next elections in 2014?

This is quite right. However, the major difference between this and the previous arrests is that the latter were clearly made on trumped-up charges. The most recent charges are not trumped up, although it is very difficult to garner credible enough evidence to lead to successful prosecution if what my lawyer friends are telling me is anything to go by.

The arrests give Joyce Banda an added advantage as electoral season rolls on. This case might affect Mutharika’s party campaign because they are likely to spend most of their time shuttling between their homes and the court room. This could  become painful because cases of this nature have the tendency to drag on and on, although the possibility of it generating some sympathy votes for them cannot be completely discounted.

In the past, you have written about President Mutharika abusing the Farm Input Subsidy Programme for his own political goals. Is there any evidence that President Banda has done the same? Or, has she attempted to achieve the same goals through her Presidential Initiative on Poverty and Hunger Reduction?

There is not evidence to suggest that she abused the Farm Input Subsidy Programme for purposes of gaining political mileage. This has to do with her political naivety arising from the fact that, in my view, she has not sat down and critically thought about the nature of the coalition that she needs to put together in order to help her win power. This was not necessary at the time she took over, because there was such goodwill for her to succeed. Then her economic reforms started biting hard and it dawned on most Malawians that she was not capable ensuring a strategic break from ‘politics as usual’. As soon as Joyce Banda realized this shift was underway, she turned to the Presidential Initiative on Poverty and Hunger Reduction as a strategy to shore up her crumbling political support. This is why she spent her good part of her time personally presiding over the distribution of maize and maize flour to the people, in packages branded with her initials. This was an attempt to exploit food security as means of connecting with potential voters, since the issue lies at the heart of the country’s political economy.

The Consumers’ Association of Malawi has repeatedly attempted to organise demonstrations to protest against the government’s economic policies, particularly devaluation and increases in fuel prices. Do you see these protests becoming a major political force?

They could if the kwacha continues to lose it value against the US dollar at the rate it is currently doing – there is some hope that as the tobacco sales season kicks in, the kwacha could stabilize and hence the prices of basic commodities could follow suit. While any frustration is not likely to culminate in protests on the scale of July 2011, it will ferment discontent that will be exploited by various political actors in their campaign narratives for the May 2014 elections. Joyce Banda will, therefore, most likely be punished at the polls.

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