The Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) recently presided over the review of the Code of Conduct for political parties and the launch of the Media Code of Conduct. EDWIN NYIRONGO talks to MEC commissioner the Reverend Emmanuel Chinkwita Phiri on the review and progress of registration.
Q: Why is the re view of the Code of Conduct for political parties important?
MEC has taken the view that we need to be on the same page with all stakeholders. As a result, we have made it clear that even in our electoral calendar, we should be having such meetings in not less than every two months. Our first task was to look at the old political parties’ Code of Conduct. It was felt critical to review it, at the same time people should be able to own it as their own product so that they should be regulating it. So, we invited all stakeholders and looked at it critically. We have done it earlier because we believe that elections will be highly contested next year. Political parties will be moving around the country campaigning and we want them to discuss issues with the electorate. They should respect the rules of the game by not castigating one another. So, we reviewed the political parties’ Code of Conduct but also launched the Media Code of Conduct. The media in Malawi will abide by the code of conduct which has brought in the best (media) practices, but also included social media as the way of communicating. After that, we had a National Elections Consultative Forum (Necof). It is a platform for consultation in the electoral process. It includes police, political parties, traditional leaders, responsible government departments, Malawi Defence Force (MDF), development partners and others.
Q: The meeting comprised the pro- and anti-government participants. Were they able to agree on one thing?
Lucky enough, in MEC, we treat every stakeholder equally. They had their own debates out there, but at the end of the day, they came to a consensus of how best the new Code of Conduct should look. So, nobody walked out and what was agreed was arrived at through a consensus.
Q: Does the new Code of Conduct include clear penalties?
Penalties that are there are not for political parties only but everyone who infringes electoral laws. Penalties were revised by Parliament where the maximum punishment is half a million kwacha. This is like football where the referee is the authority in the pitch. You see, we need to co-exist because MEC does not want to stop people from choosing who they want to lead them. So, these are rules which have to be followed.
Q: How will you ensure you enforce the rules neutrally?
All Codes of Conduct will be turned into regulations. We shall engage the Ministry of Justice to help us. There will be penalties and these will be carried out without fear or favour.
Q: The hot topic in the discussion, during the Code of Conduct review, was on abuse of State resources, especially during the campaign period. How are you going to handle this?
As said earlier, we have come up with a code of conduct and we shall enforce it together. Everybody, ruling or opposition parties are part and parcel of what we have agreed. We hope to see a change as we publicise this Code of Conduct.
Q: What will happen when a ministerial vehicle is used for campaign?
There are several steps that are taken when we talk about electoral laws. Firstly, there are liaison committees in the districts which receive and look into these issues. At national level, there is a body that will look into these issues as well. So it is not about taking everything to police, except on extreme cases. Everybody involved in the electoral process is part and parcel of the committee that will make sure that the Code of Conduct is followed.
Q: All this is coming because of the 2014 elections. How is the voter registration exercise going?
For what we have seen so far, the turn up is just overwhelming. What remains is for the political parties and other organisations to not only sensitise the public to register, but also to vote in 2014. This is where you need more civic education and political parties need to have credible manifestoes and candidates. People should be compelled to vote because voting is power.
Q: There were problems with machines and other things. Have you sorted them out?
There are technicians out there who help with repairs. We also have brought in new machines to replace those that have broken down. So again, technicians are all over.
Q: You have also had problems with logistics?
We had transport problems in phases one and two. But things are different now. You may recall that there was a Sadc Summit and after the meeting, government gave us the vehicles and we are very grateful. Again, the National Statistical Office has promised to assist us with motorcycles. These will be deployed where vehicles will not be able to go.
Q: Opposition parties are concerned about reports of voter registration cards buying. Any solution to that?
If you look at the Code of Conduct and Electoral Law, this (voter card buying) is against the law. It is a criminal offence which must be reported to police. But we cannot be everywhere, so when that has been spotted, the police should be alerted.
Q: We are still in registration phase, what message do you have?
My message is for Malawians to take this opportunity to register because voting comes once in every five years. Come and register so that you have the chance of electing a president, MP and councillor of your choice. And when registering, do not come at the very last day because, halfway through the registration, queues are not there. We open even on Saturdays, Sundays and even on public holidays. This gives chance to those who are working to register. We are open from 8am in the morning to 4pm in the afternoon.
If I Were: Ken Msonda
With Garry Chirwa
People’s Party (PP) deputy publicity secretary, I would not defy my party secretary general (SG) Paul Maulidi’s call to apologise for the ‘war’ threats I made against the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) following the recent fracas in Mulanje where some of my party’s members were attacked by alleged DPP members.
If I were my brother Ken, I would not be in the forefront to practise politics of vengeance, especially considering that I am in the ruling party.
I certainly would do some soul-searching and ask myself what impression I am giving to the public by declaring ‘war’ on an opposing party even if they were in the wrong.
How I wish I were the PP deputy publicity secretary, because I would take heed of my SG’s advice to apologise because my insistence that I would not retract my statement is tantamount to insubordination as my party’s SG reports to Amayi, the State President.
If only I were Ken, I would also realise that it is the duty of the police and the courts to bring to justice those found guilty of violence and not take the law into my own hands just because I belong to Amayi’s party.
That is, if only I were brother Ken. Unfortunately [or is it fortunately enough?].
I am not him!
Malawi’s journey of democracy
As Malawi joins the world in celebrating Word Day of Democracy on September 15, I stock take the journey of the country’s democracy.
Malawi’s first multiparty election in 1961 was not just a mark of a nation turning 180 degrees away from the evils of colonial dictatorship.
It was also a pillar for posterity to draw the end of 84 years of colonial dictatorship and the beginning of a new democratic order based on multiparty.
Unfortunately, seven years later, that pillar lost its relevance and fell like the historical Greek city of Troy.
Malawi Congress Party (MCP), suffering a colonial hangover, passed a tragic law that made it the only party in the country. The hangover even spilled to 1971 when the party made Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda the life president.
But voice of the people—the urge to define how they want to be ruled, not dictated—roared in silence for years, until it found an outlet in 1992.
With a referendum vote on 14 June 1993, Malawi returned to 1961, marking multiparty democracy’s second coming, a triumph that was well cemented by multiparty general elections in 1994.
Nineteen years later, Malawi still remains a multiparty democracy, but the journey has not been all rosy.
‘There is progress’
Rafiq Hajat, one of the country’s political activists, says there is a lot to smile about in the two decades of democracy.
“We have maintained our multipartyism through a constant electoral process. They have been contentious election, of course, but we have never bowed to them to destroy the system,” he says.
He adds that in the 19 years, Malawi has crashed every force that conspired to revert the country to dictatorial days.
“We managed to reject [former president Bakili Muluzi’s] third and open term bids. And we rejected Bingu wa Mutharika’s urge to run this country with an iron fist,” Hajat says.
He is not the only one who is optimistic about the country’s democracy.
Chancellor College (Chanco) associate professor of law Edge Kanyongolo who, apart from taking part in drafting the country’s Constitution, was also one of the people who suffered at the hands of Kamuzu, says some progress has been made. While a law student at Chanco in the 1980s, he was detained without trial for 15 months.
“We have made tremendous progress in human rights, especially in the area of freedom of expression and the media. Again, I am quite comfortable that today, we have a right to fair trial,” says Kanyongolo.
He continues: “As somebody who experienced the horror of detention without trial, I can really be proud of the change we are enjoying now.”
Kamlepo Kalua, formerly president of Malawi Democratic Party (MDP) now in the ruling People’s Party (PP), has been the voice of democracy and change since the early 1990s.
He was one of the courageous few who pressurised Kamuzu to call for a referendum while in exile in South Africa.
Today, Kalua—who argues that democracy was fought based on the principle of shared vision and opportunities—barely feels that what was being fought for has been achieved.
“The challenge mostly is that we still have a democracy with few democrats. If you analyse most of our political parties, you will note that they are still suffering from the founder’s syndrome.
“They all want to leave the parties to their brothers, sisters, daughters and sons. The principle of shared vision is barely present,” he says.
Kanyongolo, on the other hand, notes that he has been greatly disgruntled at how the two decades of democracy have failed to transform the relationship between people elected into office and the citizens.
“Democracy was meant to change the dictatorship power balance where power was supposed to move from those in leadership and be vested in the people. This shift is yet to happen and we are yet to see the balance of power.
“The elected people continue to behave in a way that they have enormous power and are the real masters. Citizens continue to be powerless. The dictatorial hangover is prevalent in our democracy,” he says.
Hajat adds that the major drawback has been the amassment of power by the Executive.
“We have failed to build a strong system of checking the excess of the Executive. What we have seen is a steady erosion of power from Parliament. When MPs are also becoming Cabinet ministers, the line between the Executive and Legislature is blurred,” he says.
He notes that another worrying aspect is the continued growth of opportunist politicians at the helm of the country governance structures.
“Most of our politicians are barely representative of the people. Most of them are in rent-seeking,” he says.
Hajat faults the current electoral system, First-Past-the Post, as not being representative of people’s choices. He says that unless there is huge investments in enlightening the people, political change in the country will remain marginal.
“We need an enlightened citizenry; otherwise, the process will inevitably skew towards short-term gain. There is a lot of desperation in the country—the winner-takes-it-all mentality,” he says.
‘There is hope’
Kanyongolo says despite the hurdles along the way, he is optimistic about the future of the country’s democracy.
“We have developed a group of citizenry—especially activists in various areas—that is active and are able to demand without being cowed on,” he says.
He adds that apart from the activists, there is also a younger generation that is not fearful.
“I can see it from the kind of students I teach. They look promising. They are not as fearful as some of us were during our generation. This generation does not want to be easily intimidated,” he says.
Hajat, who advances that democracy is an evolving process, says there are signs of progress judging from the young blood that are emerging on the political scene.
“We are seeing a group of young people rising into leadership and most of them do not carry the baggage of the old. Surely, that old mentality will, with time, begin to recede. I am quite hopeful that Malawi is currently sitting on the threshold of a change for the better,” he says.