analysisBy Theresa Kasawala
The electoral bandwagon in Malawi is gathering pace after the presidential candidates officially entered the race - along with their respective running mates.
Escorted by diehard supporters clad in their party paraphernalia, the candidates passed through Blantyre last week on their way to file their nomination papers with the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC).
Usually, all eyes would be on the presidential candidates but their running mates have assumed special significance this year because of the way in which Joyce Banda, who was then vice-president, assumed the reins of power after the sudden death of President Bingu wa Mutharika. All Malawians now know that the running mate could end up running the country and therefore their strengths and weaknesses need to be examined as well.
A close scrutiny of the running mates chosen by the four main political groupings - the ruling People's Party (PP), Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and United Democratic Front (UDF) - reveals two major preferences behind their selection - for youth and for a running mate from a region where his party is not strong.
The DPP and PP have both gone for youthful running mates in the hope that their age will resonate with young people and encourage them to vote - crucial when one considers that almost two-thirds of Malawians are young people.
The DPP's Professor Peter Mutharika - Bingu's brother and a former minister - has settled for 41-year-old businessman, Saulos Chilima, who until his appointment was Chief Executive Officer for the mobile company, Airtel Malawi. Given that Mutharika is now 74, it was imperative for him to choose a younger running-mate (although it would have been hard for him to pick an older one) - especially since some people are saying that he is too old to govern the country.
But Chilima boasts more than just (relative) youth. He also comes with a Bachelor Degree in Social Sciences and a Master's Degree in Economics - as well as a solid track record as a leader and successful entrepreneur, which suggests he could help to come up with some fresh ideas to drive the country forward. He is also a Catholic and the DPP is obviously hoping that he will be able to woo some of his fellow congregants to vote for them.
Another important - indeed far more important - factor is that he comes from the central region. The DPP is primarily popular in Mulanje, Thyolo, Phalombe and Chiradzulu in the southern region and it is clearly aiming to use Chilima's roots in the Ntcheu District of central region to tap into the electorate and suck up some extra voters - in a region that has traditionally been the stronghold of the MCP.
Meanwhile, President Joyce Banda has also chosen a much younger running mate in 36-year-old, Sosten Gwengwe, who is an MP and currently Minister of Trade and Industry - and who also hails from the central region. Clearly, Banda is hoping that Gwengwe will be able to entice some youthful voters into the PP's fold as well as pick up some supporters in the MCP-dominated central region
However, Gwengwe does come with considerable baggage, including a history of changing parties, which has seen him labelled a political 'prostitute'. Elected an MP for the first time in 2009 on the MCP ticket, he ditched that party to join the then ruling DPP under Mutharika, only to defect to Banda's PP after she took up residence in State House. In addition, the appointment of Gwengwe has also opened up divisions in the party because the current Vice President, Khumbo Kachale, is not happy with the decision to discard him.
Given all this - it is far from clear that Gwengwe will be a vote winner rather than a vote loser. But perhaps the risk was still worth taking because of his central regional background and his youth.
On the other hand, Richard Msowoya - running mate for the MCP's Lazurus Chakwera - is considerably older at 52 and from the northern region. Indeed, his background in the north is definitely one of the main reasons (if not the main reason) he was chosen - since the region boasts about one million registered voters. And since none of the other running mates hail from there.
But Msowoya has other strings to his bow. He holds a Master's in Science and Supply Chain Management, was a minister under Bingu (which doesn't necessarily say much) and is widely regarded as a clean politician (which could certainly help to pave Chakwera's path to State House given the cashgate corruption scandal).
Finally, the UDF's Atupele Muluzi - son of Malawi's first democratically elected president Bakili Muluzi - has chosen Dr Geofrey Chapola. Born in 1949, Chapola is very far from young but that is understandable given that Muluzi is just 35. Indeed, some think that Muluzi is too young to occupy the highest office in the land, which is why he had to have an older running mate by his side.
But once again, his age is not the only factor. He also comes from the central region and has a PhD in Agriculture, which remains the single most important sector of the economy.
And yet all this careful consideration and weighting of the regions and ages and strengths and weaknesses of the running mates might make no difference whatsoever come the election. The reality is that people vote for the person who they want to be president. There is no empirical evidence that people vote for a ticket because of who is on the bottom - i.e. the running mate.
But the parties clearly believe that this election might be different - and that enough voters might be swayed by the potential vice-presidents to make a difference to the outcome. And it seems like age and regionality are the key factors - for the parties at least.
Oh wait - and there is one more factor - all the four running mates are men.