Africa, Headlines

POLITICS-MALAWI: Main Opposition Parties Pull Out of Coalition Deal

Frank Phiri

BLANTYRE, Jan 24 2004 (IPS) - Malawi’s three main opposition parties have pulled out of a coalition deal that seeks to wrestle power from the ruling United Democratic Front in the May 18 general elections.

The refusal to join the coalition has dashed hopes of a united opposition ever getting into power in Malawi as did Mwai Kibaki’s Rainbow Coalition in Kenya in Dec. 2001.

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and the Movement for Genuine Democracy (Mgode) Friday snubbed the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signing ceremony in the commercial centre, Blantyre, leaving six other relatively small parties to go it alone.

“A divided opposition stands no chance against the United Democratic Front (UDF) which obviously has an upper hand as the party in power. By failing to join the coalition, the big parties have simply endorsed the UDF for a third term in power,” renowned political scientist Nixon Khembo told IPS soon after Friday’s deadlock.

Khembo, a lecturer at the University of Malawi, blamed leaders of the three parties for the collapse of the deal.

He cited the rivalry between MCP leader John Tembo and his former deputy Gwanda Chakuamba, whose newly formed Republican Party (RP) has signed the MOU, as the reason for the collapse of the deal.

“The leaders’ attitudes to power have not changed. They want to be in the coalition on condition that they are handed a big post,” Khembo said.

Earlier this month Tembo said his party would only join the coalition bandwagon on condition that it was given the presidency and running mate.

“MCP is a big party, with established structures throughout the country. We can’t be in the coalition without a senior position,” Tembo pointed out.

The six parties that signed the MOU include the People’s Progressive Movement (PPM), the Republican Party (RP), the Malawi Democratic Party (MDP), the National Unity Party (NUP) and the People’s Transformation Party (Petra).

The NDA and MCP, which refused to sign the MOU, questioned the modalities of selecting a presidential candidate, his running mate and a power sharing cabinet.

The NDA claims the ruling party has planted agents within the coalition with an aim of derailing its agenda.

The NDA, in a letter to the chairperson of the Coalition Facilitation Committee Bishop James Tengatenga, said it was suspicious of “political undercurrents in our coalition discussions, particularly in the emerging proposals and procedures for electing a presidential candidate and running mate’.

It said it felt betrayed by the MOU’s “failure to clarify on whether the opposition parties would be entering into a merger or an electoral alliance despite raising the question during one of their meetings”.

The NDA said it would continue with inter-party lobbying, bargaining with a view to come up with an arrangement agreeable to all the interested parties.

Also keeping its options open, the MCP said it had withheld its signature to a later date.

MCP Secretary General, Kate Kainja said the party needed to discuss the draft memorandum at its decision-making structures before endorsement.

She said, in a statement, she had “been instructed to inform the (Friday’s) gathering that the MCP strongly supports the idea of a coalition”.

Kainja said critical issues such as who leads the coalition must be resolved by consensus.

“We prefer consensus which takes into account circumstances of the players – on the ground – and the responses of the supporters we all represent,” she said.

Mgode, which split from the Alliance for Democracy (Aford), but is now in alliance with UDF, said it was also withholding its signature.

“Our party treats the MOU as a living document as there will be further negotiations on the selection of a presidential candidate, a running mate and on cabinet allocations among political parties,” said a statement by Mgode.

“The coalition discussions have had some rough corners,” said Du Mhango, the party’s vice chairperson.

The six opposition parties, who have entered into the coalition, go to the polls to select their presidential candidate and running mate in two weeks’ time.

Putting a brave face, Bishop Tengatenga, who has brokered the talks, said disagreements are inevitable where ideological differences exist.

He said such disagreements should not be interpreted as a fight but rather as a process towards change.

“We have witnessed an effort in response to the cry of the people to bring politicians that are able to discuss amicably to the people’s advantage. We hope it will please Malawians,” he said.

Tengatenga said all the interested parties were treated as equal partners during the talks.

“It would be naive to think that in a process like this one you would have a 100-percent turn up. This is a free society. To the nation, this process is of much value as the end itself. If it fails still we have achieved something,” he added.

Tengatenga said he was surprised that some parties were asking whether the agreement was a merger or an alliance. He said all along the parties involved have been discussing a coalition not a merger.

Political scientist Boniface Dulani, from the University of Malawi, warned that the opposition did not have enough time to choose a candidate.

“The ruling UDF has the upper hand because it begun campaigning mid last year,” he said.

Malawi, with a population of about 12 million, returned to multi-party democracy in 1994, after 30 years of President Kamuzu Banda’s dictatorship.

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