Political security, for the price of a bag of fertiliser

Quid pro quo

The other day Ranil wrote an excellent analysis of the creeping recrudescence of authoritarianism in Malawi, following Bingu wa Mutharika’s re-election victory, which basically eliminated the fragility of his position.

What is worth discussing a little further is the means through which Mutharika secured that victory. While ethnicity has never been as salient an issue in Malawi as many other SSA countries, its politics have long been dominated by regional `super-ethnic’ voting. It used to be the case that one of the easiest ways to know how someone was going to vote was to know whether they were from the Northern, Central, or Southern regions of the country

When I lived in Malawi, one of my night watchmen (who was from the Central region) expressed a deep affinity for John Tembo, the current political leader of the Malawi Congress Party, former right-hand man of the deceased dictator Hastings Banda. Tembo was a wicked thug during Banda’s time, yet my night watchman’s support was unwavering: “He is my uncle”, he affectionately put it, expressing regional solidarity.

Shortly after winning his first election on a United Democratic Front (UDF) ticket, Bingu wa Mutharika created the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). This was in early 2005, a time when politics was still marked by regionalism. Shortly after, an Afrobarometer survey was conducted in the country (see below), confirming the regional bias: voters preferred the DPP in the north, the MCP in the Center, and the UDF in the south.

But between the 2005 Afrobarometer survey and the 2009 elections, something shifted in the way the population expressed political support: the DPP and Mutharika managed incredible gains across all regions (see this Afrobarometer paper for more info about the shift in voting habits). This table from the report sums up this shift in support:


These changes were so massive as to warrant trepidation in the same report:

Rather than regionalism and an excess of disunity, the country may now be more at risk of
evolving into a one-party dominant system, reflecting perhaps an excess of unity. It is, however,
far too soon to tell whether the current popularity and possible dominance of the newest major
party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) – which has not even been demonstrated in an
election yet – will evolve into a lasting political phenomenon. We may instead continue to
witness high volatility in the Malawian party system. But the near-term projection based on the
findings here must certainly be that Malawi is indeed, at least for now, turning blue.

The country continued to turn blue (the color of the DPP). The shift in voter preferences carried right through to the presidential election the next year, when Mutharika saw unprecedented support in the the Center and South. There are many reasons why he might have made gains in these historically hostile regions; his first five years were marked by significant better governance and government capacity, and aid levels rose significantly during this time. However, the biggest change in policy during this term was the massive scale-up of the Malawi fertiliser subsidy progran, which we have discussed on this blog many times.

Why might this have made a difference? Many theories of patronage politics and ethnic voting point to recurring problems: evidence suggests that electorates in countries with high ethnic salience are quite savvy, knowing a bad politician when they see one. Yet they continue to vote for bad politicians when they are ethnically-aligned, because they just can’t trust the other ones. When power moves from one ethnic group to another, patronage shifts, and the losing ethnicity loses out.

Whether or not Mutharika intended it this way, I believe the fertiliser acted as a signal that the DPP wasn’t going to play the patronage game as heavily as before – that Malawians in all regions could  benefit, and would continue benefiting if they kept him in office. While there were issues with the transparency of the fertiliser subsidy, on the whole most smallholder farmers (which is most of the country) felt they profited from the fertiliser and seed distribution.

The subsidy quickly became a huge political win for the DPP – a significant hunk of the pre-election debate was dominated by to-and-fro claims about which party would throw more money into the program.

Mutharika’s claim was the most credible, and so a hugely popular program showered him with a sizable majority in parliament and the political clout to start the unfortunate lurch towards the intolerant bwana he seems to be embracing.

I don’t know that there are any lessons in this – there is still division over whether or not, in the long term, the fertilizer subsidy was a good thing. Some might – quite reasonably – argue, that this is a success case of a politician responding to the demands of the electorate. With this in mind, we’ll have a better idea of what exactly the Malawian people will be reaping come the next presidential election in 2014, when yet another Mutharika makes a play for the presidency.

One thought on “Political security, for the price of a bag of fertiliser

  1. John

    April 28, 2011 at 12:18pm

    When the subsidy program is inevitably canceled due to rising petroleum prices, it will come crashing down HARD, having bestowed the legacy of dependency on inorganic fertilizer on the farmers.

    Meanwhile, it’s going to eat up a larger and larger share of the country’s budget, because Mutharika needs the program more than any other individual in the country–he has staked his entire credibility on it. With major donors (notably the UK, their biggest; but Germany, among others, as well) renegotiating aid to Malawi in light of recent abuses, don’t be surprised if China steps in to foot the bill for the subsidy program, in exchange for a few “minor” concessions.

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