In most countries there are meaningful issues over which politicians and voters take varying positions. Countless scholarly approaches to understanding political or voting behavior engage such policy preferences as a salient political cleavage, the most common of which places political actors on a left-right spectrum defined by opposing views on the role of government or the notions of liberal and conservative. How would we understand politics if neither politicians nor voters could not be positioned by differences in policy preferences? Sub-Saharan Africa provides arguably the world’s best venue for exploring this question, and in this study I investigate the motivations that shape politics when this fundamental axis of organization and competition is absent. I offer a theory about the incentives facing politicians and voters in African countries with competitive party politics, and the I test several implications of my theory with respect to two major empirical questions: First, what determines the loyalty a politician has to his party? Second, what cues do citizens use to guide their vote-choice? Using the case of Malawi a small but populous country in south-east Africa I find evidence in support of the idea that politicians have weak loyalty to parties except insofar as parties help further short-term, office-related goals, and that politicians often switch parties to pursue those goals. I further show that voters have weak attachments to individual candidates, and rely on the ethno-regional reputations of parties in making their choice. Interestingly, the behavior of both groups contributes to a very modest re-election rate in a region where personalistic politics is supposed to rule. With respect to each question I also highlight the exceptional place of independents, who are both more mobile in terms of adopting a new party label and more likely to be re-elected than their party-affliated counterparts.