The secrets behind the success of Malawi’s opposition coalition

In the presidential election last month, Malawi’s opposition Tonse Alliance won a comprehensive victory, obtaining 59% of the vote. The governing party, led by then president Peter Mutharika, received just 40%. Shortly afterwards, Lazarus Chakwera was sworn in as the new president of Malawi, with his running mate Saulos Chilima as vice-president.

This victory was many months in the making, and came after the presidential election in 2019 was nullified by the high court, which cited serious irregularities. In that nullified election, Chakwera and Chilima ran on separate tickets, and divided the opposition vote between them. They did not make the same mistake this time around.

But this united front was not the only reason why the opposition alliance won. To understand the success of the Tonse Alliance, it is also necessary to understand three crucial factors that underpinned that victory.

50% plus one

When the high court nullified the 2019 election, it made a finding that changed the face of politics in Malawi. It concluded that in a presidential election, a majority is defined as 50% of the total votes cast, plus one. This means that it is not enough for a candidate to receive 39% of the vote and still win (as Mutharika had done before the result was set aside). In this interpretation, no candidate would have won the 2019 election.

The Supreme Court went further, barring new candidates from the new ballot, and ordering that only voters registered for the 2019 election could vote in the new one.

Together, these rulings simplified the deliberations for Chakwera’s Malawi Congress Party and Chilima’s United Transformation Movement. There was no way that either leader could win on his own, and so an opposition coalition became inevitable. Instead of competing for each other’s votes, they joined forces and mobilised robust pro-opposition voting blocs in Malawi’s northern and central regions, as well as in urban areas.

Civil society’s diagonal mobilisation

Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, the usual array of international election observers did not travel to Malawi to witness the vote. So Malawians did it for themselves.

On election day, a small army of activists, civil servants — especially teachers and mid-level bureaucrats — and volunteer professionals, such as university lecturers and bankers, deployed to polling stations across the country, including in rural areas and governing party strongholds. They were there to observe and to guard the vote.

This effort was complemented by informal patrols established by community leaders, composed predominantly of young men, who kept watch for any unusual activity in their areas. They fed information about suspicious people or vehicles to social media, and also informed units from the Malawi Defence Force, which was also deployed on election day. These informal patrols actually apprehended several individuals allegedly carrying bundles of cash to bribe election monitors, and handed them over to the police (such cases occurred in the Nkhotakota, Salima and Rumphi districts).

These different aspects of Malawian civil society worked together to safeguard the democratic process — and, in working together, made themselves stronger than they would have been on their own. This was no accident, but rather a feature of the anti-government protests that rocked Malawi for months.

Another good example is the response to Mutharika’s announcement in April of a lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, which was widely criticised for failing to account for the socioeconomic effects on ordinary people. Protests erupted in informal settlements, and in small towns and trading centres — all places predominantly made up of people working in the informal economy. But these were supported by nurses and doctors, who embarked on go-slows and sit-ins. Additionally, the civil servants’ union announced plans for a general strike in response to this and other issues.

This kind of diagonal solidarity between Malawi’s formal and informal sectors greatly amplified the effects of the protesters’ actions.

Tonse Alliance’s campaign financing 

The Tonse Alliance led a novel, well co-ordinated and well funded campaign, which used social and digital media alongside traditional platforms such as television and radio. Simultaneously, a huge community-to-community canvassing effort targeting youth (the largest constituency) and women (the second-largest constituency) supplemented mega rallies and whistle-stop tours by the party leaders.

The resources for such opposition party activities are acquired informally. Individuals and entities avoid official financial channels such as banks, and provide donations in the forms of hard cash and other in-kind support (such as campaign materials, specialised services such as IT or legal counsel, and transportation). This is generally to conceal donors’ involvement, and thus avoid potential penalties in the form of denied business from government, politically motivated audits and legal cases, and other forms of government persecution.

Opposition parties, starved of funds and marginalised from formal business, form coalitions with “invisible” financiers to competitively contest national elections against governing parties that draw their resources from government departments (especially parastatals). Governing parties can also use state largesse to buy off opposition party MPs to instigate discord, fund factions or defections, and undercut opposition-led voting initiatives in Parliament. 

The funding and in-kind support received by both main opposition parties for the two campaign cycles (first May 2019, and then June 2020) was colossal. The controversial appointments of several wealthy cabinet ministers from the business world partly reflects this — as, most likely, will subsequent appointments to parastatal boards and chairperson positions, as well as diplomatic missions.

Now that Chakwera and Chilima have successfully assumed power, they will have to service these political debts accrued during the campaign — without alienating their broad coalition of supportive yet vigilant supporters, who expect them to deliver on their campaign promises to transform Malawi. The success of their term in office is likely to be determined by how well they can balance these competing priorities.

Mphatso Moses Kaufulu is a political scientist. He is affiliated with Malawi’s Human Rights Defenders Coalition.

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