Changing the Game: Malawi’s First Vice-Presidential Debate

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Malawi’s Vice-presidential hopefuls talk to a full room of Malawians in the nation’s first ever running mate debate on March 8th 2014 at Bingu International Conference Center. Photo by Tara Thindwa

Malawi’s first ever presidential debates are a game changer in Malawian politics. On Saturday March 8th, millions of Malawians tuned in using multiple media platforms when the country held its  first political debates ahead of the May 20th polls. The debate included the Malawi Vice-Presidential candidates from the four most prominent parties. The presidential running mates who participated were Saulos Chilima from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Richard Msowoya from the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), Sosten Gwengwe from the People’s Party (PP), and Godfrey Chapola from the United Democratic Fount (UDF). Their participation in a debate of this nature may represent a decisive turn in how Malawians select and perceive their potential presidential candidates.

The debate, dubbed ‘Question Time’, was held at the Bingu International Conference Center in Lilongwe and was hosted by privately owned Zodiak Radio Broadcasting Station (ZBS). The event also supported by the Center for Multiparty Democracy – Malawi who provided some sponsorship and consultation for the event. The news of the debate was well received by Malawians for a number of reasons.

First, Malawians are a very politically aware population and pay close attention to what is occurring politically within the nation. This means that conversations that were once limited to newspapers, watering holes, universities and on social media about the candidates personalities and ideology was now truly entering the public domain.

Second, since the current president was a sitting vice-president, Malawians have been paying more attention to this role. In the past, the vice-presidential pick was more of a ceremonial role, but after President Bingu wa Mutharika’s death, it hit home to Malawians that no leader is invincible – the importance of selecting a running mate that is “ready-to-rule” the country has not been lost on Malawians.

Third, Malawians have been calling for an issues based campaign climate so that they can make more informed choices when they vote since the advent of multi-party rule in 1994. This meant that they could now hear from the candidate’s themselves what their thoughts and ideas were.

Lastly, politicians in Malawi are quasi-celebrities (everyone knows who is running the country) and the debate made for some good old fashioned entertainment. Therefore, the idea of the debate was generally well received in the country by all citizens.

Many Ways to Tune In:

It was a well-attended affair which attracted invited guests from all political persuasions. This included select members of the general public,  diplomatic corps and business world. The First Gentleman, Chief Justice Retired Richard Banda was there to support the presidential running mates. Guests were told to arrive early in order to secure their seat and were not permitted to wear their political attire in order to create a neutral environment conducive to a fair debate.

In spite of the predominance of elite guests, Zodiak Radio did a commendable job in ensuring that the debate was accessible to a wide population. There were multiple ways that the entire population were inlcuded. The event was aired live on Zodiak Radio in Malawi and on Zodiak Radio online as well. One could also watch it on Times Television – a newly launched private broadcasting channel. In addition, a live stream of the debate was available on Zodiak’s You Tube channel. This meant the Malawian Diaspora who live as close as South Africa and as far as United States of America could listen or watch the debate in real time.

Zodiak also used social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter where they posted information about the event including  commentary and photographs. However, whereas they had live on-going interactive  commentary on Zodiak’s Facebook page, they fell short on Twitter. Zodiak could have included more minute-by-minute live tweets on Twitter, including creating a standard hash tag for the event.

There seemed to be confusion on Twitterland over which hashtag to use for those following the debate (Some used #runningmate, #zodiakbroadcastingstation or #Malawielection2014 (I did created the hashtag, #MalawiVPDebate out of frustration). However, a good share of the moment-by moment debate tweets came from the users @Malawi2014 and @MEIC_2014. Overall, the station did a good job at making the event accessible to Malawians both in Malawi and in the Malawian Diaspora through multiple media platforms.

The Language of Politics

One major way in which the station ensured that the debate was inclusive of the majority poor voters was in having the event held in Chichewa. Whilst official language is English is understood throughout Malawi, Chichewa as the national language is understood by most of the population. The use of Chichewa though meant that it excluded both Malawians in the Diaspora as well as Malawians in Malawi that may speak Chichewa. This includes those that are more comfortable with the Tumbuka language as well as the growing youth in urban areas that don’t speak Chichewa – which of course is a problematic trend. It forced the political candidates to translate difficult technical phrases, languages, and topics in a way that there ‘grandmother in the village’ could understand it and not just the donors who fund the development projects.

This of course means that parts of the debate were going to be ‘lost’ in translation regardless of which language was used. Perhaps for future debates they can find ways to make the debate either bi-lingual or multi-lingual to accommodate Malawians that were Chichewa-challenged. Overall though, it was a suitable language choice for the first debate.

The State of Malawi:

The debate included a wide range of topics that were of interest to the nation. The moderator, Joab Frank Chakhaza began by asking the candidates to define what they think there role is as vice-president which set the tone of the debate. One aspect of the debate that can be improved on was the order in which the candidates were asked to respond to the questions – they need to start with a different candidate each time so that one person is not always given time to ‘think through’ the question.  Overall, Chakhaza did an excellent job at keeping a balance between showing the VIP candidates due respect whilst keeping them focused on answering the questions asked and adhering strict time restraints. It also included a portion where the candidates answered questions from the audience – clearly evidence that the country has come a long way from the era when Malawians could not dare question their political leaders.

The topics discussed included maternal health, child mortality, youth empowerment, agriculture, medicine shortages in the hospitals, income and corporate taxes, family planning, corruption, job creation, the mining sector and poverty. It also included problems the nation is experiencing with the conduct of current and past political leadership such as constitutional violations, unfulfilled promises and presidents that don’t listen to the will of the public. Even though issues pertaining to women such as maternal health and child mortality were brought up more attention should have been paid to more controversial but pertinent issues women face such as abortion, property grabbing, child support payments and the participation of women in politics.Overall, the breadth of questions showed that the goal of the debate was a step in the direction towards having elections decided on political issues and ideology as opposed to personalities – a change that Malawians have been wanting to see in their for a few years.

One particular topic – their position on gay rights – seemed to catch all the candidates off guard. All the candidate fell short from ensuring that as government leaders, they had an obligation to protect the rights of all Malawian citizens in spite of the court of public opinion. However, overall for a first debate of this nature in Malawi, all the candidates performed well and showed both their strengths and weaknesses.

First of Many Debates

For those that missed the debate, they will be able to see an unedited replay of it on Zodiak Radio’s YouTube page, and  an audio clips conviniently divided by topic on the webpage Malawi the Warm Heart. However, since this was the first, it also means that there will be a second. A series of 5 debates with either presidential or vice-presidential candidates have been planned. This paves way for more fair and balanced coverage in the electoral process in Malawi.

This first political debate in Malawi’s history is a political game changer in the way that candidates are selected. Malawians can now better select their candidates based on personality, knowledge, ideology, understanding of the issues and political savviness. It has successfully enlightened the Malawian electorate about their potential leaders as candidates as well as who they were as people. Political debates have also given us a national platform where leading parties can sell both their candidates and manifestos. Although some candidate’s supporters ‘cried foul’ over the fairness of the debate, the debates were generally viewed as  impartial, balanced, well organized, the candidates were prepared for the experience, the audience cooperated and it excited the bases of all parties.  It also guaranteed that as the next debates hit the airwaves, many more Malawians will tune in!

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