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Tonse Alliance: Litmus test for coalition governments

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Edge Kanyongolo

With the country now adopting the 50+1 voting system in presidential elections, it is likely that electoral alliances will become a common feature in elections. ISAAC SALIMA looks at whether the country’s political landscape is ready to embrace electoral alliances.

On February 3 2020, the High Court sitting as a Constitutional Court’s verdict ruled that former president Peter Mutharika was not duly elected and that a fresh presidential election be conducted.

The court also ruled that 50-plus-one voting system be applied in the fresh election, meaning that those that have to be declared victorious have to amass over half of total votes cast.

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As a result, the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), UTM, People Transformation Party, People’s Party, Umodzi Party, People’s Progressive Movement, Freedom Party and Malawi Forum for Unity and Development formed an electoral alliance.

On March 19 2020, the deal was finally sealed.

On the other hand, the then governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) combined forces with the United Democratic Front.

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As it were, the Tonse Alliance upstaged the Peter Mutharika led administration.

It is now almost two years into the Tonse Alliance-led government and, for the first time in the country’s history, an alliance of nine parties is leading the nation.

However, accusations and counter-accusations continue being the order of the day among alliance partners, especially MCP and UTM.

Social media have now turned into platforms for insulting each other.

Despite a seemingly healthy working relationship between President Lazarus Chakwera and Vice President Saulos Chilima, there is nothing much to point at in the alliance.

For instance, while the Tonse Alliance leaders agreed that they would be meeting once every two months to help in shaping the governance policies, no meeting has been convened since June last year.

The question is: What precedent has the Tonse Alliance set, so far?

MCP spokesperson Maurice Munthali said the country is yet to understand what party alliances mean.

“We feel we, as a country, are yet to understand how alliances can be managed and be sustained. The Malawi scenario may not be equated to that of other countries because, here, we need to understand what it takes to live together in alliances while implementing what was agreed,” Munthali said.

He further said it is too early to assess the performance of the Tonse Alliance as that has to be done after five years.

UTM mouthpiece Frank Mwenifumbo feels that there are so many lessons to be drawn from how the Tonse Alliance is being managed.

“This was an experiment since it was a first in Malawi. There are so many lessons we have to learn in terms of how the alliance has been managed so that future alliances can be perfected. We can competently judge the alliance after the expiry of its five-year period,” Mwenifumbo said.

The alliance was, last week, under another major test when MCP deputy general secretary Catherine Gotani Hara made a pronouncement at the party’s dinner in Lilongwe that they had endorsed Chakwera as its presidential candidate for the 2025 presidential election.

“The Bible says that whatever is bound here on earth the same is bound in heaven. So we are today making it binding that, in 2025, our presidential candidate will be Chakwera,” Gotani Hara said.

Her endorsement of Chakwera comes a few months after MCP vice president Harry Mkandawire raised similar sentiments.

In the pastoral letter released in March this year, Catholic bishops, under Episcopal Conference of Malawi, noted that the country lacks a legal framework for a coalition government.

The letter proposed that a constitutional framework for alliance governments be put in place.

Legal expert Edge Kanyongolo, however, downplays the bishop’s concerns.

“It [constitutional framework on alliances] would be nice but not essential because you can have alliances without any specific legal framework. This is the case with many other democracies,” Kanyongolo said.

As the five-year journey in the Tonse Alliance continues, partners in the coalition continue living in the dark on what the next day holds for the alliance. Is the alliance going to be sustained? Who will be the torch-bearer next? These are unanswered questions that partners and followers in the alliance continue asking.

Political commentator Ernest Thindwa says this could have been avoided if there was a legal provision of enforcing what was agreed in the first place.

“In other countries, whatever has been agreed in an alliance is backed up by a legal provision for [easy] enforcement. I think that is what is supposed to be done in the country. The voters need to know what was agreed in an alliance even before voting. But, for that to be done, we need to enforce the law on that,” Thindwa said.

Monsignor Patrick Thawale of Public Affairs Committee says political parties should be able to stand on their own and forget about alliances.

Apart from being a sure way of getting into power, alliances ensure that Malawians benefit from different party manifestos and ideologies. The alliances also reduce political bickering associated with having more parties.

With three years to go before next elections, there is a need for the Tonse Alliance to do a soul-searching on whether it is living by ideologies it was formed for to avoid setting a bad precedent for future alliances.

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