Our Staff Writer JAMES CHAVULA catches up with National Civic Education (Nice) chief Ollen Mwalubunju to share lessons from the good, the bad and the ugly side of the March 31 by-elections.
How do you remember the recent by-elections?
They were generally peaceful despite sporadic cases of violence, mainly in Karonga and Nsanje. The Electoral Commission put in place some Covid-19 preventive measures such as provision of face masks, hand sanitisers and the voters were being encouraged to social distance. Polling materials were adequate and no polling centre asked for additional ballot papers. The transfer of ballot boxes and other polling materials to the district tally centre was done on time. By midnight, all the polling materials were at the tally centre in most districts.
What are the major lessons from the by-elections conducted amid the second wave of Covid-19?
: Voter education can be done through other approaches than those that require physical presence. The safe strategies include loud haling and community radio because of their closeness to the people. Traditional leaders play a big role of mobilising the masses to participate in all stages of the electoral processes once they are properly oriented.
There were some traces of foul and inflammatory language as well as acts of violence in the campaign period. This speaks of retrogressive conduct by political players. This requires concerted efforts by a cross-section of stakeholders, including the political parties themselves who are the culprits.
The youth who give moral support to contesting candidates during campaign do not usually vote. Besides, when primary elections are conducted in a fraudulent manner, voters shun the entire electoral processes.
Q: What do you make of civil society involvement?
: The absence of many civil society organisations in activities related to the by-elections was a negative factor that could eventually lead to the erosion of the gains made in the country’s democratic growth because by elections are an important governance barometer.
Are we winning the battle against a culture of handouts?
The continued use of hand outs and violence are some of the dark sides of the elections that need to change. Soliciting, issuing and receiving of handouts refused to die in the by-elections. This is contrary to the Political Parties Act of 2018. What is required is political will to ensure enforcement mechanisms are put in place and operationalised.
Why is it difficult to kick out the kickbacks-for-votes syndrome?
Almost all the contestants were giving handouts to voters despite the presence of the law that prohibits the tendency. It is becoming difficult to stop the handouts syndrome because the contestants believe that they cannot win the elections if they do not give out the handouts. At the same time, the law on handouts seems to be toothless. Electoral stakeholders should consult widely and find strategies to fully operationalise the Political Parties Act of 2018, especially in the enforcement of the clauses to deal with the soliciting, issuing, and receiving of handouts which are continuing in the country despite having the law in place.
Why should Malawians be worried about the gifts they receive during polls?
If the tendency is not stopped, people will only be voting for candidates who give them something even if the contestant is not suitable for the seat. Additionally, the handouts will only intensify violence during elections. Some people tend to be violent when they are not accessing the handouts from the contestants.
Furthermore, electoral laws will not be obeyed to the fullest if contestants keep defying the laws on handouts. Any law relating to the electoral process should be respected.
What about abuse of State resources?
This is also refusing to die. This is true, especially for the governing party. This is an issue that has continued to plague the country’s elections. There is need to separate party and State functions. It is difficult to separate the two when a party functionary who is a Cabinet minister comes in a ministerial vehicle, gets involved in the campaign and claims that they are on government business.
How do you feel about candidates’ defiance to Covid-19 rules?
The failure to observe Covid-19 protocols in the campaign period put the lives of many Malawians at risk. Parties need to understand that human lives matter. Lives lost cannot be recovered. In future elections, relevant authorities should take a strong stand on this.
The contestants have been defying the Covid-19 measures since the 2020 fresh presidential elections because they believe in campaigning to huge gatherings, which is against the laid down restrictions.
Contestants must come up with innovative ways of reaching out to their followers. These include distributing fliers detailing their development plans, loud hailing, whistle stops, playing of radio jingles on radio stations that are massively followed in the area and door-to-door campaign and meetings of smaller groups.
What approaches did Nice take to increase Covid-19 awareness?
All our planned activities were conducted despite the pandemic. Nice uses the 360 degrees model of civic education, which is inclusive of every sector of society and leaves no space in mobilising communities. However, this model was affected extensively by Covid-19. Some peace-building interventions were conducted in Karonga due to the volatile situation that was experienced there. Nice district offices largely reached out to communities through the following methodologies.
To reduce Covid-19 spread, we produced and distributed posters; sent letters to traditional leaders, religious leaders and various structures; conducted loud hailing, held whistle stops and aired radio programmes on Radio Alinafe and Nkhoma FM.