Is political pluralism a threat to Malawi?

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Democracy has allowed the proliferation of small political parties on the African continent. Is this a retrogressive development to the very democracy we want to see thrive? Asks Teresa Chirwa-Ndanga, of The Global Communiqué.

It is encouraging that virtually all African countries have embraced democratic systems over the years. What used to hang in the balance was a ruling party’s ‘inability’ to lose elections and step down as a result. In recent years, we have seen more incumbent governments step down after losing elections. Recall: Nigeria, The Gambia, Ghana and Malawi were good examples. However, democracies have allowed the proliferation of small parties, which I argue, are failing to make a significant mark on the political scene. These ‘small’ parties offer no ideological difference and I contend that the proliferation of such political parties is a retrogressive development to the very democracy we want to see thrive.

Malawi as a Case Study

Malawi currently has close to 60 registered political parties – this is against a population of about 17 million people with approximately 7.5 million registered voters (according to the 2014 voter register). Of the 60 political parties, none actually articulates a particular ideology for which they stand.  Most of the parties are only formed after some disgruntled individual leaves a bigger political party. They are mostly formed to satisfy someone’s ego as a result of someone’s quest for power. Political parties have become a vehicle for power rather than a means to achieve political activism for the betterment of society.

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With respect to Malawi’s most recent general election, in 2014, there were 11 presidential candidates. Ten of them participated in a first ever presidential debate that ended up to be a platform for them to articulate what they would do once in office, none of their views strikingly differed to each other. That begged the question: upon what basis does an electorate make a decision for whom to vote for? It appears political parties sell individual personalities.

The result in the 2014 Malawi presidential election was a clear indication that some of these small parties are better completely off the political scene or rather consolidated together. There were four major political parties: the now ruling Democratic Progressive Party, the Major Opposition Malawi Congress Party, the then ruling People’s Party,  and the United Democratic Front. The four main political parties did relatively well. There were, however, seven other political parties that got no more than one percent of the vote – of the seven only one of them managed to get a seat in parliament, with many of the presidential candidates who had also contested at parliamentary level even failing to make it to parliament. This was a clear demonstration that many of the voters did not have confidence in them.

I submit that the multiplicity of small parties defeats the whole purpose of political party pluralism; which I agree that democracies should embrace. Many of the small political parties only become active during election season; upon which time, they often times do not win any political seat.

Should Small Political Parties Be Deregistered?

I argue for ‘political discipline’. Political discipline refers to the process of deregistration of political parties when such a party does not win any seat in an election and thereafter does not engage in any political activism (before or after the election season), which is therefore of no benefit to the country to keep such a political party active. A requirement that a party should win a seat in parliament or local council would motivate political parties to invest in political activities. Parties will invest in political activism outside election cycle years.

We need to begin to question the motivation of registering a new political party that has no noticeable difference in ideologies with the already existent political parties. Malawian researchers Nixon Khembo and Eric Mcheka observed in their study that “It is easy for parties in Malawi to emerge, merge, disintegrate or form alliances and coalitions. The cost of party formation and access to electoral contest is low and the legal threshold for political parties is liberal.”

The registrar of political parties in Malawi registers parties that have shown evidence that they have 100 members who are Malawians and are of the voting age. When they meet this requirement, all they need to provide would be the party name, two copies each of the constitution, rules and manifesto of the party, the address of its office, a list of names and addresses of party leaders and office bearers signed by each, a list of names and addresses of 100 party members signed by each.

Conclusion

There may be a number of issues that need to be changed to achieve rationality in the political arena, these include: the increase in the number of members one needs to be able to register a political party, this will ensure party leaders invest in securing as many signatories as possible. There may also be a need to introduce some party registration fee (this has been controversial in other country contexts). This would show a commitment to follow through with the roles of a political party. Emphasis should also be put on the manifesto which should talk of the ideologies that particular parties wish to represent. This will ultimately ensure a competitive political party pluralist system for the benefit of the nation and electorate.

This post first appeared on The Global Communiqué
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