Friday, May 28, 2010

One year on- thinking aloud on the first anniversary of Mutharika’s second term

How time flies. It is already more than a year since Bingu wa Mutharika stood at the Kamuzu Stadium podium, Bible in hand and took the oath of the President of the Malawi Republic for a second time. With the passage of one year, Mutharika has already spent 20 percent of his second term, leaving only four more years before he can pass on the presidential torch to a new leadership.

Speaking to the multitudes of Malawians gathered at the Kamuzu stadium on May 22, 2009, it was clear that President Mutharika saw his and the Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) victory in the 2009 general elections as a reward for the achievements he had attained in the preceding five years. And in true adherence to the old Chewa proverb that claims "fumbi ndiwe mwini", Mutharika highlighted in his inaugural speech what he claimed were the achievements of his first administration from 2004 to 2009.

The public applauded, sang, drank, danced and went home, jubilant that not only had Mutharika been given a fresh five-year mandate, but also that his DPP had emerged with a huge parliamentary majority that would, on paper at least, enable Mutharika to purse his developmental agenda without the kind of shackles that had been a characteristic of the opposition-dominated Parliament between 2004 and 2009.

One year on though, the excitement has began dissipating. The optimism of May 2009 is gradually being replaced by a sense of a President who is increasingly out of touch with the people he is supposed to represent. In the last year, the most notable of the president's handwork has been the purchase of the presidential jet as well as the recent multi-million Kwacha wedding whose total cost, as well as who paid for it, still remain unclear to date.

Meanwhile in the National Assembly, there is a sense that despite the huge DPP majority, the Parliament has not lived up to expectation. In the absence of a strong and robust opposition, laws are being passed without adequate scrutiny. Meanwhile, there is a fear that the ruling party's huge parliamentary majority is being used to advance the interests of the DPP at the expense of democratic values and the interests of the country.

While the political game plays out, the ordinary people of Malawi, those individuals that were courted by the political elites to sacrifice their time and resources to stand on long queues and expose themselves to the elements in order to cast their votes in the May 19th elections, have become rank-outsiders, forgotten and discarded until such a time when politicians will again want their votes as the 2014 elections loom closer.

This scenario often leads to regular discussions on the value of the vote. In buses, markets, churches, stores, football stadiums, drinking joints and other similar places, one hears a common question: why vote, especially considering that very little returns accrue to the voting public.

Indeed, within political science, the question on why individuals bother to take time off from what would otherwise be more self-benefitting activities in order to cast their votes, has led many researchers on electoral behavior to conclude that voting is an irrational activity. Put differently, rational individuals should abstain from voting, especially since besides the economic costs, there is an extremely little likelihood that the vote of a single individual can influence the electoral outcome.

Yet, democracy rests on the foundations of people's vote, even if theory tells us doing so is irrational. And thankfully, most of us continue to exercise our right to vote, in part because we see voting first, as a civic duty, but also as an opportunity to influence government policy by choosing individuals and parties that we think are best placed to advance our personal interest to the extent that those are also the interests of the majority of our country-folk.

If voting is a civic duty, then, it follows that those elected into power have a responsibility to the voters to deliver on their promises. Elections, in other ways, entail a form of a contract, where voters put individuals into office and expect them to honour their campaign pledges. Meanwhile, the voters' role goes beyond simply voting to include a duty of holding those elected into various public offices to deliver on their promises. Without such scrutiny, politicians will promise anything, including the moon, even if they know they cannot deliver.

It is in in-line with the foregoing that it might be worth to remind ourselves at this point, the one-year anniversary of the DPP's and Mutharika's electoral victory in the 2009 elections, what the DPP government promised and to start the process of assessing where we currently stand.

In his 20-page inaugural speech on May 22, 2009, Mutharika identified eight themes from the DPP manifesto as priority areas in his second administration. These included agriculture and food security; integrated rural development; education, science and technology; youth development; transport infrastructure development; irrigation and water development; energy development; and fighting corruption.

The one priority area that has arguably received the greatest attention in the last one year has been agriculture, especially with regard to the continuation of the agricultural subsidy component which has been instrumental in ensuring food security in recent years.

However, while the president continues to bask in the popularity of the agricultural input subsidies, he needs to be reminded, as do all Malawians, that the 2009 DPP manifesto promised a more comprehensive agricultural programme that also included promises to introduce and promote modern agricultural tools and equipment as well as the development of an agricultural green belt. Suffice it to say that these promises have been honored more in rhetoric and less in actual deeds.

While it seems a great idea to promise so much during elections campaign, there is very little movement in actual delivery on many of the other eight priority areas. Most of the road construction has stalled, perhaps waiting for the next electoral campaign cycle; the energy sector continues to be beset by numerous challenges as demonstrated by the frequency of electricity blackouts and fuel shortages in the country. Meanwhile, the promises of dams as part of the irrigation and water development sub-theme have remained nothing more than glossy words printed in on expensive campaign manifesto paper read by only a few elites.

Admittedly, one year of five is too soon to make a final judgment on the overall government performance. The direction taken in the past one year, can, however, serve as a useful pointer on where we are headed in the remaining four years. The only way Malawi is going to progress is not through promises borne out of colourful dreams by politicians. Already, we have, as country, seen how some colourful dreams remain nothing more than mere dreams.

We Malawian voters need to do our part in the electoral contract – if politicians are to be judged by their performance, then we need to hold them to account on their promises and call them out when they fail to deliver. And when they do not deliver, we should boot them out and reject any other new promises because these are likely to be false too. The past, in this sense, should give us the basis to decide on the future. That future, meanwhile, can itself be shaped by today's voter vigilance.