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Founder syndrome stifling grassroots democracy

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With George Kasakula:

With UTM holding its long-awaited convention in Lilongwe two weeks ago, it means the convention season is over and now all the major parties are geared up for the showdown on May 21 next year.

As was expected, Vice-President Saulos Chilima was elected the opposition party’s president unopposed as there was no immediate challenger to his rule in the party—founder syndrome at play.

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In his acceptance speech, Chilima made a wide range of remarks that aimed at positioning himself as a reformer he wants to be.

He promised Malawians that a UTM government would free public broadcaster Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) from political interference and that Macra will no longer be the cash cow of ruling parties.

Escom too merited a mention in Chilima’s speech. If Malawians decide to give UTM the mandate to govern in May, the state company would also be freed from political interference.

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There were a couple of highlights during the convention and one of them was that Chilima was among the 14 UTM National Executive Committee members who were elected unopposed.

The others elected unopposed included Secretary General Patricia Kaliati, Director of Publicity Joseph Chidanti Malunga, Director of Women Patricia Shanil Dzimbiri, Director of Legal Affairs Yasin Maoni, Director of Elections Paul Chibingu and Director of Students Affairs Leonard Kamatenda.

The other highlight of the convention is that in an attempt to reverse what they consider Chilima’s plight in the DPP where he was never made a member of the National Governing Council (NGC), the meeting empowered him to name his running mate who will automatically become vice president for the party.

The positive to take from the UTM convention is that it happened and Chilima once again made a powerful speech which positioned him as somebody with an ability to reform certain aspects of our nation such as the operation of MBC, Macra and Escom

But he has been in government and still in government and these bodies have not reformed.

Probably in Chilima’s defence he would say he was not on the driving seat.

But Malawians now have a basis to take him to task after May 21 if they decide to give him power and he does not deliver what he said on MBC, Macra and Escom.

If truth be told, most of our parastatals and state companies need reform and Chilima could have named more.

Aside from the above, having 14 positions unopposed that included key positions such as president, secretary general and director of publicity says something about lack of competition in the party which does not sit well on whether the tenets of democracy were achieved in the end.

There are serious questions on why founders of the movement from day one such as Noel Masangwi and former director of youth Louis Ngalande did not vie for any position.

Were they stopped? Did they volunteer? Were their positions not included in the party’s constitution and why? Did they feel that probably the other positions were low for them?

Masangwi, for example, why did he not vie for any position and instead be baptised a mere patron of the party as if he had already served and retired? What does it mean to be patron? Will he be attending National Governing Council meetings for example?

UTM might think that by empowering Chilima to appoint his running mate and make him the party’s vice-president they have solved the problem he met in DPP and it will look good and nice.

This is not actually the case because the matter should have been the other way round in the sense that the convention as the supreme body of the party should have elected the vice-president and then Chilima could have followed it up by appointing such a person his running mate and, if Malawians ordain so, his vice-president both in government and the party.

What it means is that if indeed such a person become vice-president of the country as well as the party, he would have no mandate and base in the ruling UTM.

A position of vice-president should never be undermined in any party as it can cause instability as has been seen with UDF when former president Bakili Muluzi opted for Justin Malewezi as State vice-president and left out Aleke Banda who was his first vice in UDF.

It created problems that never left UDF until the time the party left government and Muluzi brought in the late Bingu wa Mutharika instead of the two to succeed him, leading to the break-up of UDF until today.

MCP’s president Lazarus Chakwera seems to have got it right after naming Sidik Mia his vice in the party as his running mate opening the door for Mia to also become State vice-president if the ticket wins the election come May 21 next year.

Of course, the drawback is that such an arrangement precludes any hope of MCP forming an alliance with anybody and offering them the running-mate spot in such a set-up.

To me, the biggest problem in our parties is that most of them are founded on individuals and founder syndrome seems to be afflicting them instead of the conventions being the supreme body calling the major shots.

No one was brave enough to stand against Chilima because they thought challenging him would somehow undermine his leadership being the founder of the party.

The same thing happened in MCP and DPP with no one challenging the incumbents for the big posts.

Eve in PP and UDF, the incumbents had little-known contenders challenging Joyce Banda and Atupele Muluzi for the position of president that it was almost travesty of the whole process.

The only exception was in DPP where there was real competition for the position of vice-presidency for South where we saw bigwigs such as Joseph Mwanamvekha and Henry Mussa as well George Chaponda, who later withdrew, challenging the eventual winner Kondwani Nankhumwa.

That is the competition that democracy requires as it brings excitement and satisfaction to the eventual winner, in this case, Nankhumwa that people trusted  them and have their mandate.

The culture of real democracy will only start in political parties and then that will feed into the national democratic discourse.

The only drawback is the founder syndrome as certain names are synonymous with certain parties and no one wants to challenge them in the most fundamental way.

It is stifling grassroots democracy.

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