In 1994, Malawi ousted Kamuzu Banda’s dictatorship, adopting a democratic constitution instead. The new constitutional order embraced multiparty politics, holding four general elections since then, with the fifth scheduled for May20, 2014.
During each election cycle, incumbent and aspiring members of Parliament descend on constituencies promising to champion development if elected. One member in Kabula Constituency in Blantyre has been touring projects he ostensibly initiated to convince voters he is development conscious. Towering billboards around the country depict President Joyce Banda lauding her People’s Party candidates ‘Phungu wa chitukuko‘—member for development. Employing different strategies, they outdo each other in giving handouts; investing in infrastructure—drilling boreholes, repairing roads and constructing bridges; donating equipment and materials—ambulances, tyres and roofing sheets; running football leagues and providing coffins.
Anecdotal evidence shows that unsuccessful candidates reclaim investments after loss, often demolishing infrastructure and confiscating donations, accusing constituents of ingratitude. The benevolence to obtain favour from the electorate permeates election to every public office in Malawi, with graduating degrees of extravagance, extending even to the presidency. Such distribution of handouts perpetuates a culture that characterised Muluzi’s presidency— Malawi’s lost decade1994–2004. It is the reverse of, and contrasts with campaign contribution schemes exploited for political influence in countries with campaign financing frameworks. This year’s election promises nothing new; the jostling and positioning has already started in earnest.
A culture of handouts typical in Malawi’s elections is anathema to democracy. The claim that members of Parliament champion development is a misrepresentation which blurs the separation of powers between the Executive and the Legislature. Handouts fuel indolence; it promotes graft and cultivates corruption amongst the public while vandalism of donated infrastructure violates the right to development.
In this article, I clarify the role of members of parliament. In Malawi’s constitutional structure, development is reserved for the Executive through local government structures. I call for reforms of electoral laws to institutionalise Parliament’s functions, entrench separation of powers and inspire honest and responsible campaigning. Finally, I advocate prosecution and punishment of unsuccessful aspirants for vandalism of public infrastructure.
Representative Democracy—Origins, Development
Representation is primacy in governance founded on democracy. Understanding the role of members of Parliament thus necessitates examination of democracy as governance. Democracy originated in ancient Greece where the people developed a system of government in which every citizen participated in public affairs. Citizens debated laws, regulated taxation and authorised public expenditure.
Democracy re-emerged in Europe following discontent with rule by kings. Unlike in Greece, however, it emerged as ‘representative democracy’. Instead of direct participation, citizens elected representatives to Parliaments. Representative democracy was popularised in America during the American Revolution when the colonies objected to British colonial taxation and legislation without representation. In their understanding, no foreign power should tax people not represented in its Parliament.
In Malawi, Britain introduced ‘representative democracy’ during colonial rule. With elements adapted from the American experience, this is the representation adopted in the Constitution, with minor influences from British Parliamentary practice.
Members of Parliament—Functions
The Constitution outlines functions of members of Parliament—which is the representation of constituents in the National Assembly granted by Section 66: Deliberation of finance and legislative bills; trial of the President or Vice-President by impeachment; allocation of funds to government and checking public expenditure. Members are primarily charged with ensuring constituents’ views are considered. The Constitution does not empower members to champion development as asserted during campaigns. Members need to focus on proposing laws that better people’s lives, create the legal frameworks that promote businesses and repeal outdated laws. Unfortunately, it is not unheard of imagining a member of Parliament spending their entire term without contributing anything to Parliament beyond their maiden speech.
Some argue that members of parliament cannot introduce private members bills to propose laws or amend the Constitution. This perception is erroneous given the nature of the constitutional mandate. It is a vestige of colonial trappings from English parliamentary practice where members can only bring private members’ bills to confer a private benefit, for charity or amend a law establishing an agency on whose behalf such bill is introduced. In Malawi the Constitution does not limit what type of bills members can introduce.
Others argue that members receive funds through the Constituency Development Fund (CDF) for development initiatives. That is equally erroneous. The purpose of the CDF is to enable members fulfil their responsibilities with minimal financial hardship. If members are to better represent constituents, they need to conduct consultations, research and prepare submissions. Second, the CDF ought to finance town hall meetings to collate constituents’ views on proposed bills. The claim by candidates to champion development is a misrepresentation of the function of members of Parliament and blurs the separation of powers between the Executive and the Legislature.
It is ward councillors who are constitutionally authorised to initiate development. Section 6 of the Local Government Act provides that local government councils are mandated to make policy and decisions on economic and infrastructural development; consolidate and promote local democratic institutions through the formulation, approval and execution of development plans; mobilisation of resources and, in conjunction with the Malawi Police Service, maintain peace and security. Incumbent and aspiring members of parliament usurp these functions when they claim to champion development during campaigns, blurring the separation of powers between the Executive and the Legislature, compounded by the absence of local government since 1994.
Although councillors are elected together with members of Parliament, and deliberate issues like members of parliament do, they are not part of the legislature; they are part of the Executive. They report to the Executive through the Ministry of Local Government and, as précised above, are responsible for implementing laws and development initiatives at city, municipal and district levels. Being part of the Executive, they have the structures to facilitate both local development and accountability measures. Members of Parliament have neither the resources nor the authority to facilitate development.
The Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) and the National Initiative for Civic Education (Nice), complimented by civil society, need to initiate civic education programmes to educate people on the separate roles and responsibilities of members of Parliament and ward councillors. Further, electoral laws should be reformed to restrict members of Parliament to their constitutionally designated functions.
Vandalism—Violating the Right to Development
Every time incumbent and aspiring members donate infrastructure, it becomes part of public property within the context of the right to development. Section 30 of the Constitution guarantees the right of all persons and peoples to development—which extends to economic, social, cultural and political development. The State is enjoined to take necessary measures for the realisation of the right to development, including the equality of opportunity for all to access basic resources like education, health services, food, shelter, employment and infrastructure. Whenever candidates invest in local infrastructure, construct bridges or repair roads, build dispensaries, schools, drill boreholes or donate ambulances, they act as duty-bearers, unwittingly ensuring the effective realisation of the right to development.
The duty to respect is established as one of the four duties in human rights law. That duty restrains any duty-bearer, whether State or non-State actors, from interfering with rights people already enjoy. Reclamation of donations or demolition of public infrastructure by losing candidates constitutes a flagrant breach of the duty to respect and is a violation of people’s right to development. Such acts are criminal and perpetrators should be charged with the offence of malicious damage to public property. Electoral laws need to specifically make it a crime to demolish infrastructure constructed during election campaigns.
Malawi has made commendable progress reforming its governance institutions, like holding four general elections since 1994. Members of Parliament serve a significant purpose in a democratic society. However, the role and responsibilities of members of Parliament need to be clarified to curtail the culture of handouts during elections that breed indolence and perpetuate misrepresentations that blur the separation of powers between the Executive and Legislature. It is also important to highlight the role of ward councillors legally mandated to lead development initiatives. Lastly, vandalism of public infrastructure by losing aspirants is a crime even if sponsored by such aspirants during election campaigns.