Stay Tuned: Radio and Elections in Malawi
In Malawi, radio plays an important role in politics and society. While only seven percent of the population have access to electricity, almost two thirds of Malawians own or have access to a radio. People are hungry for information.
As the events in Kenya following the disputed 2007 elections showed, however, radio can also be misused for political purposes. There, political parties used FM radio stations to broadcast hate speeches and vilify opponents, declare ‘no-go zones’ and encourage supporters to attack their rivals.
Within this context, a catchy radio jingle exhorting the voters of Malawi to ‘be responsible’, to ‘get to know your political parties’ had special significance. The jingle, which was played on a private radio station in the lead-up to Malawi’s 2009 presidential and parliamentary elections, also neatly encapsulates the philosophy of Malawi’s Centre for Multiparty Democracy (CMD-M).
Lead-up to the 2009 elections
The post-election violence that rocked Kenya sent shockwaves throughout the region. It was for this reason that CMD-M organised a field visit to Kenya in January 2009 for representatives of Malawi’s political parties, in order to appreciate first hand what went wrong in 2008, and how this might be avoided in Malawi in 2009.
Francis Mphepo, Deputy Secretary General of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the head of the Malawi delegation, said as much at the beginning of the visit: “We want to find out what was the cause of the crisis, and how they resolved the crisis. The reason we want to learn is that we are holding our elections in Malawi next year and we want to learn so that what happened here does not happen in Malawi.”
This attitude was echoed by Wakunda Kamanga, National Campaign Director of the DPP: “We have to do all we can to make sure that the Kenya scenario is not repeated here. And as political parties we therefore agreed that we must come up with a communiqué, where every party agreed, to make sure we are committed to a peaceful election.”
For its part, the CMD-M was also aware of the need to find a variety of ways to limit the potential for violence and thus commissioned a second radio jingle, entitled ‘Ziwawa’, encouraging people to remain calm throughout the night of Malawi’s general elections.
However Malawi’s politicians continue to face another problem: the attitude of ordinary citizens towards their political parties. In March 2008 Justice Anastazia Msosa, a Justice of the Supreme Court of Appeal who chairs the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC), told a gathering of African politicians: “The mistrust that the general public has in political parties must be reversed!”
The role of the Malawi Electoral Commission
According to the Executive Director of CMD-M, Kizito Tenthani, the MEC itself also needed to be improved. “From that visit [to Kenya], what we referred to as an important lesson [was] the importance of having a credible electoral commission and we went back home to try to enhance the credibility of our electoral commission and to improve the trust the political parties had in the electoral commission in Malawi.”
Political parties’ trust in the MEC was crucial to the smooth running of the election, including the avoidance of political violence in the postelection period. CMD-M therefore organised a series of meetings with the political parties and other electoral stakeholders, including the MEC, encouraging them to achieve agreement on conf lict prevention procedures.
Khwauli Msiska, the sole Alliance for Democracy (AFORD) MP elected to the current Malawian parliament, stressed the importance of these meetings:
“CMD-M managed to organise a number of meetings with the electoral commission in our country and through those meetings we managed to push through some of our suggestions which were taken on board. In that way my party felt safe and protected, and hence we managed to contribute towards peaceful elections in Malawi.”
The role of the media in Malawi
While the media in Malawi is ostensibly free, few would disagree that the power of the major protagonists to use the public media for their own gains cast a shadow over the lead-up to polling day. This was acknowledged in the final report of the EU monitoring group sent to observe the elections:
“…the state-owned media in particular failed to fulfil even their minimum obligations as publiclyowned broadcasters as their coverage lacked any degree of balance and was openly biased in favour of the DPP. The election coverage of Joy FM was also similarly biased in favour of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and Malawi Congress Party (MCP).”
Further complicating matters, in demonstrating the fragility of the media in Malawi, the oppositionfriendly Joy FM was actually shut down on election day, and several of its announcers arrested, after it broadcast a satirical skit directed at the DPP, in apparent contravention of the MEC’s media rules governing the election period.
The EU report went on to single out “the private radio stations – Capital and Zodiac Broadcasting Station – [which] provided impartial and balanced coverage of the political parties contesting the elections as did the newspapers.” One of the reasons for the “impartial and balanced” coverage provided by these private radio stations was CMD-M’s decision to purchase airtime on Zodiac for the purpose of providing all parties with an opportunity to communicate their election platforms.
Therefore the radio programmes helped raise the public profile of political parties. According to Khwauli Msiska, “we were able in this particular project to package our message through the radio of our choice and we effectively communicated our message, including issues emanating from our revised manifesto, to the general public.”
Looking to the future
President Bingu wa Mutharika and his DPP Party won the elections comfortably, gaining a two-thirds majority of parliamentary seats in the process. The elections themselves, according to the EU monitors, while “not without blemish” were judged to be overall free and fair.
As the DPP’s Wakunda Kamanga points out, “You know under the Banda regime, which was a dictatorial regime, it was commonly said that democracy or multi-party democracy is war, and some people believed it. But we said to the people, ‘No, democracy is development, your own development. You will decide what must be done in your communities and you will be able to speak freely about anything that affects you.’”
Despite this optimism significant obstacles remain, including the issue of party financing and the thorny issues of the President’s stranglehold over the public media and the need for a more independent electoral commission.
Nevertheless, the inclusive efforts of organisations like the CMD-M have meant that the political culture in Malawi is changing, if slowly.
Stay tuned for further developments.