The government side of the House on Wednesday rejected a proposed amendment to the Referendum Bill that would have meant that a referendum would be held upon submission of a petition to the President signed by 30 percent of registered voters.
The government side defeated the amendment by 92 ‘yes’ votes, against 55 ‘no’s’, with six abstaining and 39 absentees.
The Referendum Bill, which has since been passed without amendments, aimed to provide legislation on the holding of a referendum with an indication of which matters would be subject to a referendum, restrictions and the conduct of such a vote.
However, the government has not taken on board a proposed clause in the Bill that the President proclaim a referendum only after submission of a petition to him/hert signed by not less than 500 000 registered voters.
Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Samuel Tembenu seemed to agree with the amendment as proposed by Lilongwe North East legislator Maxwell Thyolera (Malawi Congress Party-MCP) that a referendum be declared upon submission of a petition signed by not less than 500 000 registered voters.
Tembenu said he was comfortable with the proposed amendment but he would prefer the figure to be at 1 million registered voters.
“While the proposal seems reasonable, Malawi has a growing population so 500 000 seems too low. I would be comfortable if the threshold was raised to more than that,” he said.
But when the amendment was amended to reflect 1 million as the number of signatories to a petition to the President, the government side, including some People’s Party (PP) MPs voted against it.
Drama followed when a division was called, then withdrawn on the understanding that the amendment would instead reflect a percentage of registered voters with Tembenu supporting the proposal on the basis that the number of registered voters would change from time to time.
However, even after Tembenu agreed, this was also rejected resulting in the opposition calling for a division vote which the opposition lost by a wide margin.
The rejection by the government perplexed the opposition prompting Karonga Central lawmaker Frank Mwenifumbo to describe the happenings as mind games.
“I am surprised that the government is shooting down a suggestion by their own Minister of Justice. There is chaos on that side, I have never seen this before,” he said.
In introducing the amendment, PP spokesperson Godfrey Munkhondya said considering that a referendum was demand driven, there was need for a method for people to communicate the need for a referendum through a petition.
“The need by the public for a referendum may not be the need of the President. So how will the public communicate when that need arises?” Munkhondya wondered.