In politics, we often hear of rise and fall. Globally, there are many examples of politicians that rose and fell – some gracefully, others miserably. Some later rose back to political stardom, others, despite attempts for comeback, went into oblivion, never to grace the corridors of political power again.
Atupele Muluzi joined those whose fate in politics got an abrupt, untimely cut following a disgraceful double loss in last year’s Presidential and Parliamentary elections. The ultimate question is : on which side of the two probabilities does his fate lie?
Political comebacks are a rarity – from Winston Churchill in the UK to Richard Nixon in the US. From Nelson Mandela in South Africa to our own Catherine Gotani Hara, who, after making it to Parliament in 2009, lost in 2014, before her return in May 2019 and became Speaker!
By looking at the few politicians that made comebacks, traits of self-belief, loyalty to the masses and sheer fortune are very much pronounced.
For the most part, politicians that lose steam or clout are seen as a liability among peers and, generally, Malawian political party supporters are mostly swayed by populism than political principles or philosophy, therefore likely to scoot off in the event of failure.
This smart, eloquent and seemingly cultured young politician was probably one of the most promising ahead of the polls. In some quarters, he was considered a game-changer. Some even called him the 2019 Joker!
Probably since establishment, his United Democratic Front (UDF) was considered stronger in the eastern region. Thus, any party that would have convinced Muluzi for a pact would have had the opportunity to tap into the numbers and carry the day.
It appears the DPP cunningly beat him to his own game. They bestowed upon the young Muluzi influence and the comfort that comes with being a minister, way ahead campaign period. It appears the choice to align himself with President Peter Mutharika – who appointed him cabinet minister in the DPP government – was the genesis of his fall.
Prior to last year’s elections, it was even rumored that President Mutharika was thinking of roping him in as a running mate, but for his UDF roots. It was also alleged that a previous similar encounter that went wrong between Bakili Muluzi, Atupele’s father, and Bingu Wa Mutharika, Peter’s brother, leading to the formation of the DPP, was referred to as the reason why the deal wasn’t viable by insiders.
Whether true or false, we all know that every rumor was dismissed after submission of nomination papers where little known Everton Chimulirenji was chosen by Mutharika and Muluzi opted for Frank Mwenefumbo. At that point, it was everybody for himself!
Prior to this, Atupele travelled the breadth and length of the country on assignment as minister, preaching the development agenda of his boss and later competitor, Mutharika.
This obviously made him lose focus on his own party, the UDF. Furthermore, it caused confusion among his supporters as his inclusion in cabinet (as Lands Minister then minister of Health) and his allegiance to Mutharika was mistakenly construed as the emerging of the DPP and UDF among many.
This confusion paved way for the DPP to systematically and slowly cannibalize his followers. If not, keeping Atupele too close helped fragment the opposition, thereby scattering votes. For example, there are still UDF loyalists bitter with how the DPP was formed and would rather look the other way than go to DPP.
These people would vote for Atupele to the detriment of any other candidate it be Lazarus Chakwera of MCP or Saulosi Chilima of UTM. Looking at the results in retrospect, you will see logic in DPP’s cunning strategy in the way it played its political game.
By blindly remaining in Mutharika’s cabinet under the illusion of political entitlement, Muluzi became an architect of his downfall.
By remaining closer to Mutharika, Muluzi became easily susceptible to attacks from political opponents during the campaign period. How could he not be accountable for the failures of a government of which he is party to?
Furthermore, there was growing resentment from within the party that he had sold off the party for his own comfort, with very little benefit trickling to the rank and file in his own party.
As a result, only UDF MPs that capitalized on their personal connections with voters made it. Muluzi himself miserably failed to secure a seat as an MP, a clear sign that the UDF brand no longer imbued confidence in the voters.
Since the defeat, there has been very little action by Muluzi. He spent the better part of 2019 at a Fellowship in China.
Now that he is back home, would he seek a comeback? Obviously, the choice to take an early retirement from active politics seem improbable, given his attributes.
He is still a young, intelligent and charismatic politician with some potential for magnetism. However, this magnetism can only manifest if he comes closer to the people again.
But in my humble opinion, Muluzi’s comeback faces two probable impediments. Firstly, while he was away, other political players dominated people’s mind share, taking advantage of the elections court case to the extent of almost drowning his existence, at least in the short term.
Secondly, major opposition parties (whose votes constitute a majority of those cast in last year’s elections) have formed a ‘marriage of convenience’, fighting against what they call “electoral fraud” while Muluzi seats on the fence with his feet dangling towards the DPP side of the fence.
In a democratic country such as ours, Muluzi is free to associate with any party of his choice. However, there is a caveat: Muluzi can only enjoy such liberty if it’s about him as an individual. As a party, decision making has to be collective. It is an open secret the decision for Muluzi to align with the DPP was more to do with the ministerial post.
Muluzi failed to get a proper bargain from the DPP when the UDF was a going concern. Does he really think things will get any better now when turbulence is reportedly swirling in the DPP? When a statistical majority is against that very same establishment?
UDF supporters have hibernated for far too long. Does he, as leader, think their loyalty and persistence are resilient enough to resist the temptation to join other parties just because he promised change when he became president?
I may not be privy to some information as to why Muluzi is acting in the manner he is acting now. But I don’t think there is political prowess in any of it.
From a political point of view, the young Muluzi might have reached his wits’ end. But he needs to realize that any desire to resuscitate the UDF and his political career should start now.
Atupele Muluzi needs to work on his self-belief. The sooner he realized his future does not rest with the DPP, the better. The DPP is a political party. It is not an asylum granting agency for dejected politicians. If anything, his relationship with the DPP prior to the elections was just a person-to-party transaction for which he was duly remunerated by being appointed minister.
I doubt if ever there was a clearly drawn inter-party Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) outlining Terms of References (ToRs) spelling the give and takes in the partnership.
In the absence of a substantive MoU, the relationship between Muluzi and the DPP is like one between a gambler and owner of a betting house. He hedged on his baits, lost almost everything and, yet, he still appears to have some entitlement over what he no longer claims ownership of – no leadership legitimacy because of the double electoral defeat and loss of his support base due to cannibalization of supporters and, more, out of frustration.
Muluzi should also realize that political loyalty should not always be permanent. His loyalty to the UDF and the DPP, if any, or that of his people towards his party and him as leader can only be as long as necessary. Change is inevitable.
I love to draw inspiration from history. Churchill led the Conservative Party from 1940 to 1955. Before that, he was a member of the Liberal Party from 1904 to 1924. Our own Gotani Hara was DPP and switched to MCP.
Can Atupele swallow his pride and, perhaps, realize that the UDF may no longer offer him the necessary leverage to achieve his full potential?
Young Muluzi needs no lessons on how loyal political supporters are hard to come by for a party that has been out of government for almost 15 years.
He clearly understands where real power is found. Sadly, he seems busy chasing morsels than strategizing on how he should finish what he started and, probably, make daddy proud!