Two weeks before Parliament rises, government remains elusive on when it will table the Electoral Reform Bills contrary to public expectation and earlier promises that the Bills were ready for tabling in the current House sitting.
The development has forced Public Affairs Committee (PAC) to register its frustrations, saying with the current scenario, the likelihood that Malawi will go to the 2019 polls using the much-maligned First-Past-the-Post is high.
Random interviews with some ministers indicate that Cabinet is yet to agree on which Bills to present out of proposed five.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a minister said the bone of contention is the 50+1 proposal, which government is not comfortable with.
“Unfortunately, most people, including donors want 50+1. So, we have been debating whether to introduce other lesser controversial Bills and leave out the 50+1 issue, but then we may attract attention. It is quite tricky. We have not agreed anything so far,” explained the minister.
In an interview with Nation on Sunday, Solicitor General Janet Banda, who is principal secretary for Justice, indicated that the Bills are not yet ready, adding that Cabinet will have to meet to agree on the way forward.
She said it was wrong to suggest that the Bills were ready and simply awaiting presentation to Parliament, arguing there is a whole procedure which is yet to be finalised.
“The report from the [Special] Law Commission containing recommendations on electoral reforms is being processed through Cabinet procedures. It has been considered by the Cabinet committee on Legal and Parliamentary Affairs. The committee, through the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, has adopted and proposed a number of Government Bills from the said recommendations, which will be considered by Cabinet soon as the next stage,” said Banda.
She said after Cabinet approval, the Bills will be published in the Gazette as government Bills ready for tabling in Parliament.
This is contrary to what Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Samuel Tembenu told Parliament in June, that government would table the Bills in the current meeting of the House.
Tembenu said he would only comment in Parliament, but during the opening of the 47th Session of Parliament, Mutharika did not mention anything on electoral reforms in his address.
Nation on Sunday has also learnt that the opposition Malawi Congress Party is also coy on the wholesale tabling of the reform Bills.
Though leader of opposition Lazarus Chakwera threatened to boycott deliberations in the House if the reform Bills are not tabled, sources in the party said MCP is equally not comfortable with the 50+1 proposal.
“Our president promised PAC that he would push for these Bills, but for sure as a party we are also not ready for 50+1— it can also work to our disadvantage. But we cannot say that in public;that can damage our reputation as a party which believes in democracy and everyone is looking up to us for a better Malawi,” said the source who is a member of the MCP national executive committee.
But lawmaker and lawyer Ralph Mhone told Nation on Sunday that government is employing delaying tactics to frustrate the process.
According to Mhone, with commitment, the process of presenting the Bills in the House can be done within a day.
Last November, MCP parliamentarian for Lilongwe South Peter Dimba, through a Private Member’s motion tabled an Electoral Bill which sought to effect amendment to the Presidential and Parliamentary Elections Act, to improve electoral process and results management.
The Bill, which is still on the floor avoided inclusion of 50+1.
According to Dimba, he avoided the 50+1 issue because it is controversial; hence, would not pass in the House.
“Most members agree with my Bill because it is less controversial. This is why the motion was approved and I tabled the Bill. I doubt if the motion would be approved if 50+1 is included,” he said.
But the Public Affairs Committee (PAC) has stressed that it will go ahead with the December 13 march to register its frustration with the way government has handled the issue of electoral reforms.
PAC chairperson Reverend Felix Chingota told Nation on Sunday that the delays in tabling these Bills is worrisome.
“Our march has been scheduled for the 13th [of December], two days before Parliament rises. Our aim is to register our frustration with the conduct of the government which does not seem to listen to the voice of reason.
“It is becoming clear that government is not interested in these reforms and we want to ask all Malawians to rise against such conduct. MEC made it clear that if the Bills are not passed on time —they will go business as usual come the next elections and that is disappointing,” said Chingota.
DPP meets MCP leadership on reforms
Leader of opposition Lazarus Chakwera last Thursday met representatives of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) on the way forward on the Electoral Reforms Bills.
Chakwera, according to sources, was accompanied by MCP chief whip Robin Lowe while the government side was represented by Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Samuel Tembenu and leader of the House Kondwani Nankhumwa.
Both Chakwera and Nankhumwa confirmed about the meeting to Nation on Sunday.
“During the meeting Chakwera asked government to present to Parliament lesser controversial bills, and delay the 50+1. The leader of opposition was clear that he is also not for 50+1, but cannot openly say so because he promised PAC that he will push for it,” said the source. Two MCP MPs from Kasungu and two others from Lilongwe corroborated the matter.
But in an interview, Chakwera said he met the government side to push for electoral reforms.
“The agreement was to have them bring the bills that are ready rather than wait until all of them are ready. Our position has not changed on the 50+1 issue. Anything that strengthens our democracy is what MCP supports,” said Chakwera.
Nankhumwa described the meeting with MCP as normal House business.
“We had a meeting yes and it is normal for leader of the House to meet leader of opposition. By the way, we meet almost every day during Parliament session because we all sit in the business committee. But I am not in a position to share what we discussed, because doing so would be unethical for me,” he said.
In an interview with our sister newspaper Weekend Nation, diplomats who included British High Commissioner Holly Tett, Norwegian Ambassador Kikkan Haugen and USA envoy Virginia Palmer, indicated that they expected government to table the Electoral Reforms Bills in this meeting of Parliament. n