Championing the poor: Branding around poverty reduction as a response to electoral competition in Malawi, 2005-2014
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Malawian national politics since 2005 has featured two presidents, Bingu wa Mutharika and Joyce Banda, who quit their respective former parties when political rivals impeded their paths to power. Both leaders thereafter established new political parties and opted to “brand” them as prioritising poverty reduction. These brands—which had programmatic, rhetorical, and symbolic components—allowed Mutharika and Banda the possibility of achieving a broader national appeal, whereas presidential elections before 2009 had been decided on the basis of regional patronage networks. Mutharika’s brand suggested how he would empower smallholder farmers to be able to ensure their own food security. Mutharika achieved this outcome in his first term and the voters overwhelmingly returned him to office. A collapsing economy in his second term, however, intensified national poverty. Banda’s brand was a response to this poverty and suggested how she would be committed to alleviating poverty for Malawi’s marginalised groups including women. Her “handout” programmes endeared her to some poor Malawians who had not benefitted from Mutharika-era growth. The 2014 election result, in which 36 percent of the vote was enough to win the presidency, indicates how no candidate’s political brand had earned the appeal of a majority of voters. Analysis of Afrobarometer survey data reveals that Malawi’s citizens tend to prefer government action to address food shortages over the redress of poverty directly. Mutharika’s successful efforts to combat food insecurity were relatively salient to voters in 2009. Banda’s destitution-centred efforts were less successful in the 2014 election.