Malawi will conduct the first ever tripartite elections on May 20 2014 that will usher in new councilors, MPs and the president. This is an opportunity that has come to Malawians to address perennial challenges that dog our representative model of democracy. Often times, we have noted that our elected leaders, once into power or leadership positions, detach themselves from the electorate.
The leaders act like bosses who know everything about the needs of the people and limit the spaces for consultation, feedback and effective representation. Disabled by the weak and unwilling implementation of the decentralisation policy, citizens, even under local governance structures such as Village Development Committees and Area Development Committees, only come together to discuss their developmental needs with minimal results since some powers of decision-making processes remain in the hands of a few people.
Local governance structures, therefore, have not yet fully actualised the dream of meaningful citizen participation just as they have not yet empowered citizens to take their governance and developmental destiny in their own hands.
Unfortunately, the persisting political culture and practices in Malawi have not accorded such an opportunity of accountability mechanisms between elected leaders and citizens, denying Malawians a very critical component of a fully-fledged democracy.
As a result, Malawians every five years participate in elections with skepticism and nostalgia, intimating that elections are just a ritual that gives a term of five years to a few Malawians to get rich quickly at the expense of the development of all people and the participation of citizens in the governance systems and processes.
Consequently, citizens resign to fate and passivity as they feel they have little to do to ensure spaces for participation are created and sustained. They become cynical as they believe they are used every five years to cast their votes for the same character of leadership that is insensitive to their daily life struggles.
To many leaders in politics, this might seem unfounded and exaggerated considering that there are other cases of leadership that have been re-elected, meaning it is the desire and satisfaction of their voters to maintain them in such leadership positions or it is a litmus test of approval since if such were not the case, voters would not re-elect their leaders.
However, the popular perception on political representatives in Malawi, as evidenced by the 2011 NDI-CCJP research titled No Voice No Power, is that elections have been providing the nation liars after liars who promise the better Malawi different from the past yet in the long run, recycled leaders maintain their lying strategies with minimal qualitative changes in people’s lives.
What must we do during the electoral processes to ensure that mechanisms of accountability from would-be candidates are enshrined in the campaign processes?
Important strategies that must be put into place to ensure accountability of would-be candidates at councilor and MP levels include:
l Auditing the past developmental promises of current existing representatives. In this case MPs since we did not have councilors. Communities can assess the promises that our current MPs made before they were elected in 2009, prepare a report of the same and organise an interface meeting with the MPs in their area to jointly appraise the results of the promises as seen in the last five years. These must be realistic results that pertain to the core functions of the MPs to avoid concentrating on peripheral issues that MPs take up just to create a human face of development. From such an initiative, it will be obvious that our MP has delivered or not. Then a public verdict, as per the needs of the constituency, is passed whether to have this MP continue or elect another one. This stocktaking is very critical for providing evidence of functionality of elected representatives. It will also send a message to those that intend to compete to prepare for such accountability measure; hence, minimising the phenomenon of false promises.
l Communities must prepare their own checklist of community needs that is well researched through needs assessment and prioritisation of such needs. This can become a constituency manifesto that citizens can use to interrogate the aspiring candidates manifesto and promises at councilor level or MP level. Townhall meetings of community-led debates can be held with aspiring candidates to gauge if the candidates share the same vision and developmental concerns of the constituency. If not, any aspiring candidate putting forward ideas not in line with this constituency manifesto must not be encouraged to proceed or in essence must not be voted for as she/he will be falling into the same cycle of political manipulators that have enriched themselves regardless of citizens needs.
l The same is being proposed for presidential aspirants. Presidential debates are being proposed to accord Malawians an opportunity to interrogate aspiring candidates for the highest office of the country on critical issues of governance and development so that no-one enters the presidency without a clear vision, purpose and sense of direction for this country.
If done successfully, since it is the first time Malawi will conduct such type of presidential debates, all presidential candidates will know that they will be tracked in their promises arising from the debates. If a presidential candidate does not effectively articulate the needs and aspirations of the nation and has no clue in the strategies to be put in place to deal with existing socio-economic and political governance challenges, then citizens would not vote for such a leader for it will be a waste of time and the ballot.
l Similarly, another mechanism to be put in place is to ensure that this years elections campaign must be issue-based. They must cease from continuously being an attack on the personality, origin, religion, tribe and gender or age of a candidate; rather, they must focus on addressing the vision, purpose and developmental aspirations of the nation. Only informed citizens shall desist from listening to a would-be leader who wants to thrive or go into power through narrow aspirations, political manipulation of voters, inciting ethnic or religious sentiments.