We still await the final results from Tuesday’s tripartite elections here in Malawi. It has been a fascinating time to be an observer. Here are 10 things I have learned during the Malawian elections:
Voting in Malawi happens outside
Like many things in Malawi, voting takes place outside. So much nicer than the cold rainy season of November elections in North America.
Parties are not based on ideology
Candidates switch parties very easily here. They may be seen as traitors to their party but not to an ideology. There are no parties clearly identified as “conservative” or “liberal” or “social democrat” or “labour” etc. Parties merge and there is nary a word about whether they match ideologically. There are a large number of independent candidates who run and a number who win (at the local and parliamentary level; not at the presidential level). Politics here seems freer from polarized ideological debates than North America.
High levels of engagement
Although one observer group said that Malawi should have voting day as a public holiday, my experience has been that it is a de facto holiday already. Classes are cancelled. Staff get the day off. Businesses close. Admittedly this is in an urban context but it seems like everyone is going to vote. A broad spectrum of citizens participate. I’m told that voter rates are higher here than in Canada.
Personal identity matters more than policy
Each party released a manifesto and I think that only one was reasonably well-written and well-thought out. Lots of rhetoric, little analysis, leading to wild promises obviously meant to appeal to very specific voters. All parties are for “development” but most parties have few plans besides ad hoc “projects” to meet that goal. Voters I have talked to don’t vote for a person because they have a policy they agree with; they vote for a person that they like. This is also true in North America but I think less so.
Elections mean volunteering
With so many voters and little technology (some polling stations didn’t have electricity for instance) there is a reliance on large numbers of volunteers to make it work. Without pay lots of Malawians took the day off of work, spent 14 hours or more helping with the election, only to return to work the next morning. Lots of dedicated people whose incentive can’t be money is impressive.
Blurred lines between party and state
It is surprising to me how indistinct the party is from the state. Is a sign paid for by the party or by the state? Is a gift given by the party or the state? Even simple things that never get mentioned, like holding a party fundraiser at a state-owned building, seem strange to me. This is not a partisan knock against the DPP. I could point to elected officials of all parties who have used state resources for party purposes. And this surprise isn’t just me – the EU Election Observation Mission had this to say, “We also observed misuse of handouts [by this they mean cash payments etc.] and state resources and overall there was an unlevel playing field in favour of the ruling party.” Even though the ruling party is named, their advantage was likely due to the fact that they were in the majority; all elected officials seemed to blur the lines.
Corruption is taken for granted
The papers daily tell Malawians about corruption but that doesn’t seem to make a dent in what people think about particular politicians. Millions, even billions, of dollars go to the elites, and then, when given the opportunity, Malawians don’t vote them out of office. Elections aren’t seen as accountability mechanisms. Often, I will hear that they are all corrupt so it isn’t an issue that differentiates candidates. I have voted against candidates in Canada because of scandals so this observation troubles me. I think that this and #6 above (blurred lines) point to the complicated nature of “corruption” as understood by Malawians. My comment is less condemning Malawians and more surprise at how different cultures understand and react to power and “corruption.”
The idea of a fourth estate does not hold
The press here seems quite partisan. Even more, there doesn’t seem to be the same tenacity of investigative journalism. I’m not sure why this is but I am sure there are some very good reasons for it. Perhaps it is too dangerous to pursue the truth. Perhaps there are cultural impediments to honest reckonings. I don’t have the answer but the number of important stories that get reported then dropped seems high. Trudeau should be so lucky if the Canadian press forgot about SNC-Lavalin.
Intuition trumps polling
Despite looking for them, I have not seen a single poll this election season. I have a hard time imagining a North American campaign strategy that does not put polling data front and centre. I’m not saying that there should be polls here. Obviously, parties campaign effectively based on their intuition. Still, I wonder if this is a factor that hinders breaking down what some commentators call “tribal” but what I prefer to call regional, barriers. The Reform Party or Bloc Quebecois were not “tribal” parties but regionally based ones that eventually either had to build a coalition with other regions (Reform) or dissipate for lack of wide spread support (Bloc). Here, parties campaign in their regional “strongholds” because those are their people. They know those people and, if elected, they will govern for those people. There is no detailed knowledge of other regions and therefore no incentive to try to build a broader coalition. Polling can segment the population but it can also lead to searching out for something different groups have in common to build a coalition. Since ideological or policy issues are not really at play in Malawi elections, there is no way to build a coalition around them. Perhaps polling would only tell parties what they already know: our people vote for us and their people vote for them.
Track record of governance means little
Getting re-elected as the incumbent is not about a good track record. Again, on the issue of “development” – it is clear that the country is not developing by any objective measure. On the other hand, inflation has come under control. In other words, the track record of the DPP government could be spun negatively or positively. Whether a government should be blamed or should get credit for either of those is not the issue. The issue is that the opposition don’t hammer at the fact that the government has been ineffective and the government doesn’t come back with how controlling inflation has been a triumph of good governance. In other words, neither opposition nor government regard the actual record of governance as something important. When it comes to getting elected, politicians aren’t dumb so there must not be any rational reason why they don’t pay as much attention to this as North Americans do.
If you have any other observations, feel free to leave them in the comments. Or, if I have got something wrong, let me know.
*The picture above is of the President as he traveled back from dropping off his papers to run in the Malawian election. I include it here not as an endorsement but as a sample of politics in Malawi.