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images and observations from a final campaign rally

19 May 2014
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Saturday marked the last day of campaigning in Malawi (rules require campaigning to end two days ahead of the polls). I went to President Joyce Banda’s final campaign rally at Songani in Zomba District. Though I’ve never actually attended a campaign rally before, the atmosphere was what you might expect of a political rally anywhere in the world: festive and high-energy, with little in the way of substantive discussion of the issues.

Wig-bearing People’s Party supporter carrying a steering wheel to signify President Joyce Banda is steering the country in the right direction. Taken by Kim Yi Dionne, May 18, 2014, Songani, Zomba, Malawi. All rights reserved.

Wig-bearing People’s Party supporter carrying a steering wheel to signify President Joyce Banda is steering the country in the right direction. Taken by Kim Yi Dionne, May 18, 2014, Songani, Zomba, Malawi. All rights reserved.

There was a large crowd awaiting Banda’s arrival. Some supporters were local, others had been brought in by minibus or lorry. The campaign procession included a number of PP-decorated vehicles, including a Freightliner wrapped with bullet points of the president’s campaign messages and customized to have an open container from which a band performed for rally attendees (and roadside groups).

Customized Freightliner. Taken by Kim Yi Dionne, May 18, 2014, Songani, Zomba, Malawi. All rights reserved.

Customized Freightliner. Taken by Kim Yi Dionne, May 18, 2014, Songani, Zomba, Malawi. All rights reserved.

The rally itself was held at Songani School Grounds. It was sunny and very warm, and the procession of the campaigners and supporters kicked up quite a bit of dust. President Banda arrived standing in the bed of a modified truck, flanked by soldiers and security.

Malawi President and People’s Party presidential candidate Joyce Banda waves to crowd as she arrives at the rally. Taken by Kim Yi Dionne, May 18, 2014, Songani, Zomba, Malawi. All rights reserved.

Malawi President and People’s Party presidential candidate Joyce Banda waves to crowd as she arrives at the rally. Taken by Kim Yi Dionne, May 18, 2014, Songani, Zomba, Malawi. All rights reserved.

Banda answered a handful of questions from members of the media upon arrival before the rally officially commenced. Thousands of people sat on the ground to listen to the various speakers. The rally began with a prayer, which ran a bit longer than most I’ve heard – so long that the crowd began to make noises to urge the pastor leading the prayer to bring it to a close. I was surprised that in an area with a sizable Muslim population that there would be so much time devoted to a Christian prayer. Perhaps the most entertaining speech was a crowd-pleaser from Uladi Mussa. The rally ended with an address by President Banda. Throughout the rally, speakers engaged in call-and-response with their supporters: “Mphamvu!”, “Kwa Ife!” (Power! From us!); “PP [People’s Party]!”; “Boma!” (PP! Government!).

Boniface Dulani, Lecturer of Political Science at Chancellor College, University of Malawi, was with me at the rally and tweeted some snippets from the rally:

The last tweet with the photograph of a lorry full of motorbikes was one of the most interesting aspects of the campaign rally. President Banda has had a number of initiatives that one might characterize as handouts. For example, she has been giving out motorbikes to bike taxi drivers (kabazas). Technically, the motorbikes are given to bike taxi drivers as a loan with the expectation that over time the bike taxi drivers will earn enough money so that the government can recover the costs of the motorbike. Banda’s bicycle-to-motorbike program has generated a lot of support from bike taxi drivers. In fact, her campaign processions often include large groups of bike taxi drivers.

Bike taxi drivers (kabazas) parked next to a lorry full of motorbikes to be distributed in the area. Taken by Kim Yi Dionne, May 18, 2014, Songani, Zomba, Malawi. All rights reserved.

Bike taxi drivers (kabazas) parked next to a lorry full of motorbikes to be distributed in the area. Taken by Kim Yi Dionne, May 18, 2014, Songani, Zomba, Malawi. All rights reserved.

There has been a lot of noise, however, about the fairness in electoral competition when Joyce Banda can use government resources to provide handouts during the campaign. The motorbikes were in a government vehicle (assigned to the Ministry of Health) bearing a license plate specific to the tripartite election, which is typically reserved for vehicles being used by the Malawi Electoral Commission for purposes of transporting election resources, e.g. ballots, to the outlying areas. The bicycle-to-motorbike program is but one example there is reason for the opposition to be concerned about President Banda having an unfair advantage. More importantly, there is reason for the electorate to consider President Banda’s program as little more than vote-buying: she is providing targeted handouts during a campaign rally. Whatever analysts thought of Joyce Banda when she first ascended to the presidency in the wake of Bingu wa Mutharika’s death, she’s definitely a typical politician.

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