There are two major areas of concern: the plan to buy and use the biometric voter registration system in the forthcoming elections and a K55 million (about $137 500) expenditure to support monitoring of ballot printing in Europe where, according to the budget we have seen, all the 11 Malawi Electoral Commission (EC) commissioners and almost the whole of the body’s executive management team are scheduled to go.
On the biometric system, the donors argue that given the short period of time to the May 18 polls, an experiment with a new system in which the country has no expertise is wasteful spending, according diplomatic and EC sources.
The commission has since cancelled plans to use the system, chief elections officer Willie Kalonga confirmed on Wednesday.
The cancellation of the electronic system comes after the commission had already conducted tours to some countries where the new system was used such as Tanzania, Mozambique, Namibia and Sierra Leone using funds from the prospective service providers.
Highly placed sources close to the electoral process said the electoral body has failed to win the support of the donors.
The source said a decision was made to cancel the plan after noting that the donors were piling pressure on government not to accept the commission’s proposal or they would stop funding elections. This would have meant government shouldering the responsibility alone.
United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) communications assistant Steven Kamponda said the body, which coordinates a basket of donor funds towards elections, welcomes the decision.
Said Kamponda: “While we wait to receive an official communication from the [commission] on this issue, we would like to point out that UNDP has consistently advised the [commission] on the need for a well-planned and phased approach to introducing the biometric system, sharing lessons learned and experience from other countries.
“Through joint exercise by the commission and UNDP, the BVR [Biometric Voter Registration] presented much higher risks than the OMR [Optical Mark Recognition] and thus the introduction of the BVR just one year before the planned elections technically presented much greater risks and challenges in terms of ensuring the smooth preparation for upcoming elections.”
In Kenya, the biometric identification system almost marred the elections after the kits started to crash and the poll staff did not have the PIN numbers and passwords to restart the software according to the postmortem media reports of this month presidential elections.
Asked to explain the drop in the budget and whether the decrease is linked to the cancellation of the new system, the commission’s director of media and public relations Sangwani Mwafulirwa said a budget is flexible and could keep on changing until government approves it.
“In some cases, the changes occur because of revision of number of units of items to be bought or migration from one system to another. At the moment, the budget discussion and review is not yet finalised, so it cannot be concluded that the budget has dropped from K14 billion to K12 billion,” said Mwafulirwa.
On the other hand, donors are questioning some votes in the budget such as the K55 million funding for all 11 commissioners and members of commission’s secretariat to travel abroad to monitor printing of ballot papers.
Sources in the donor community last week wondered why the commission intends to send all 11 commissioners abroad to monitor printing of ballot papers as if they would take part in the mostly manual work that goes on there.
The budget document also inspires little hope for civil society support during the crucial voter education period with each of the yet-to-be accredited 60 CSOs getting K5 million each.
The commission intends to print a total of 24. 6 million ballot papers, 8.2 million each for presidential, parliamentary and council elections, costing a total of K1.85 billion.
In an e-mail last week, Mwafulirwa defended the idea of having to fly all commissioners to monitor ballot printing at the expense of other important activities that require their attention in the run-up to elections.
Ballot monitoring trends
A former EC commissioner, who sought anonymity, took us through what exactly happens when the commission goes to monitor ballot printing, based on past experience.
“This job would require a maximum of 12 people who would work in a team of four and these would work in three shifts in a day. Mostly, you just need a commissioner per shift to supervise. Therefore, three commissioners would be enough for the entire period. The job requires carrying paper and cartons. I can’t imagine how a commissioner would do such kind of work. It mostly requires middle management staff,” he said.
The source said monitoring helps to check that photos on the ballots are not transposed to ensure that the candidates and their photos appear in the constituencies where they are contesting.
A survey with a cross section of members of the civil society also revealed that there has been little consultation with stakeholders on the budget.
While the Malawi Electoral Support Network (Mesn) secretariat indicated that they were consulted, their members do not seem aware of budget.
On the other hand, Mesn itself is not amused by the K5 million allocation to CSOs although they realise that civic education institutions will also have to endeavour look for additional funding from elsewhere.
“The figure required by each NGO should depend on a number of factors, which include number of wards/constituencies covered, availability of existing structures belonging to the CSO, duration of the project, number of personnel involved, mobility, proximity to the impact area and the terrain,” said Steve Duwa, Mesn spokesperson.
Church and Society of the Livingstonia Synod also was not consulted in the electoral budget formulation, according to director Moses Mkandawire.
“I should be very honest with you, that CSO institutions are rarely consulted on such issues. I am pretty sure that the commission has the required capacity to determine how much is needed to effectively and efficiently deliver the 2014 election project,” he said.
The CSOs, on the other hand, urged donor partners to quickly release funds for the electoral process to go smoothly.
But in a separate email interview, Kamponda said donors are waiting for government’s commitment before they can come in with their own support.
Currently, according to Kamponda, a joint technical team agreed between UNDP and Ministry of Finance are analysing the EC budget.