By Eveness Zuze and David Booth
African countries need economic transformation. They need it not just to raise general living standards but to create conditions in which people can enjoy social and political freedoms, including the right to choose their rulers. Economic advance and political progress are clearly linked in this sense.
As the Joint Statement argued, however, whether liberal-democratic political constitutions are good for economic transformation is a much more complicated matter. One reason is that constitutions don’t shape people’s behaviour – similar constitutions have very different effects depending on countries’ economic and social structures.
Malawi adopted a multi-party constitution in 1994. Recent events in the country illustrate the point that the behaviour of politicians and voters is shaped by factors that run deeper than the formal rules, with important consequences.
Most people were relieved that, after some days of uncertainty, the presidential succession from Bingu wa Mutharika to Joyce Banda happened smoothly. However, there is another aspect to what happened that is equally important.
Not for the first time in Malawi, the new president leads a party other than the one on whose ticket s/he was originally elected. As in 2004, what is now happening is that MPs from the party formerly in power are defecting in large numbers to the new governing party. They are doing so in many cases without consulting their constituents and anyway contrary to Section 65 of the Constitution which prohibits MPs from dumping the party that got them elected.
The important point is that constituents not only condone but tend to approve such behaviour. They are happy enough to switch loyalties. Other things being equal, people strongly prefer to be represented by leaders associated with the ruling party, whichever party that is.
This can be dismissed as a sign of Malawians’ political immaturity – a ‘single party mentality’ persisting in a multi-party system. But the behaviour is quite rational in a context where economic opportunities are limited, there are few avenues of individual and group advancement that are as promising as politics, and the best opportunities are reserved for those adhering to the ruling party. Similar things happened after the surprise victory of Michael Sata’s party in Zambia last year, and for the same reasons.
This is the way politics are, not just in Malawi and Zambia but in numerous other countries in Africa (and elsewhere). Citizens and friends of these countries can respond to the reality in one of two ways: condemning it in the name of principles of integrity or accountability, or taking it as the starting point for hard thinking about how to handle the consequences.
The willingness of MPs to defect raises the stakes in presidential contests. It strengthens the aspect of ‘winner takes all’.
In Malawi and Zambia, this aspect may not have the potential to generate political violence that it has in countries like Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire. But it surely does increase the pressure on presidential contenders to reward support in the most cost-effective ways – namely with targeted vote-buying or threats, and grand but irresponsible policy gestures. It also increases the political risks associated with tackling the big policy challenges that are recognised as the key to national economic transformation. That is one of the issues that the Joint Statement puts on the table for discussion.
The solutions are not easy, and they are not to be found in textbooks of constitutional theory. The problem of adapting Africa’s actually existing democratic systems to make them less unfriendly to economic transformation is a new problem. The rethinking has to start here!