The High Court, sitting as a Constitutional Court, on February 3 ruled the May 21 2019 presidential elections were irregular and ordered for a fresh election within 150 days. Our Staff Writer JAMES CHAVULA talks to BONFACE CHIBWANA, National Coordinator for the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP). Citations
How do you rate the preparations for a fresh poll so far?
An election is a process and not an event. This requires thorough preparation and it entails that all the processes based on the electoral calendar issued by the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) should be smooth and to the satisfaction of all stakeholders and the citizenry at large. However, the build up to the fresh presidential election has not been smooth. MEC indicates it has a K8 billion deficit. Additionally, there is a cloud of uncertainty on the election day which is creating confusion to the voters. That we are yet to lay down an enabling electoral legal framework for the fresh poll in the wake of the orders made by the High Court, sitting as a Constitutional Court and upheld by the Supreme Court of Appeal equally points to inadequate preparations. The delays to reconstitute the electoral body through appointing new commissioners are also worrisome for this may affect proper preparations. In short, Malawi is not thoroughly prepared for the fresh presidential election.
How do you see the chances that Malawi might have a free and fair election, building on the mistake made in May 2019?
Political violence is still rife and what is more disheartening is that certain sections of the politicians are perpetrating political violence through divisive and hate speeches during the campaign trail. This is unacceptable in a democracy and has potential to make eligible voters shy away from exercising their right to vote. There are still concerns about the short period the newly-constituted commission will have to properly prepare and effectively manage the fresh poll.
We continue to see pockets of violence, with parties creating no-go zones. What do you make of this?
Non-accommodative politics have no place in a democracy. The creation of no-go zones is a huge threat to the promotion of political tolerance and social cohesion in Malawi. Violence has been normalised because of poor political socialisation as political parties in the country have tended to use terror and violence to achieve political goals instead of championing policy or issue based politics. Irresponsible public utterances and proclamations by political leaders are also the reason we are in this undesirable situation. For instance, the continued public attack or disrespect of the Judiciary by President Arthur Peter Mutharika over the May 2019 presidential election case may incite violence from his supporters or followers. His party’s supporters would consider such a blatant show of lack of respect for the rule of law as normal and this is a recipe for violence. Essentially, this is dangerous for nation building and promoting the democratic culture which was espoused when the country attained multiparty democracy in 1993.
Political violence, creating of no-go zones and non-accommodative politics generally has flourished due to the growing impunity because the Malawi Police Service (MPS) has somehow tolerated the vice through poor enforcement of the laws. The MPS has been selective in handling political violence cases since the institution is much compromised politically and lacks the operational independence. For a long time functionaries from the governing political party have been main perpetrators of political violence.
QWhat could be the effects of this spate?
The current politically tense atmosphere which is characterised by political violence has far reaching ramifications. Since the MPS has turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the cries of victims of the violence the citizenry will ultimately lose trust in the institution. We have incessantly heard that the law enforcement agency is investigating cases of political violence without conclusion. This is mostly the case when the alleged culprits or perpetrators are members of the governing party. It is clear, therefore, that Malawians are being given a raw deal by the body that is supposed to provide public security, maintain law and order and protect the rights of all people regardless of political affiliation. Such a scenario breeds lack of trust in the Police and resultantly elements of mob justice, retaliation, vengeance and revenge are entrenched in the political sphere to the detriment of peaceful co-existence and social cohesion in a democracy.
We are in an unhealthy political environment.
QHow can we overcome this wave of violence? What role should government and political parties play to put out this fire?
Government, through the police, has a significant role to play to address violence as a criminal and human rights issue. It is also important that the government should adhere to and implement recommendations made by independent institutions to arrest the vice. The Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC), the Centre for Multiparty Democracy (CMD), CCJP and other non-state actors have been making several calls on curbing violence. The Republican President and the relevant government agencies should ensure that such recommendations should be complied with.
Political parties, too, should strictly enforce their codes of conduct to regulate the conduct of their followers and supporters. It is also imperative that parties should find progressive ways for the political socialisation of their members including the youth. Political leaders should move away from sheer rhetoric demonstrated by signing peace accords but show concrete actions by desisting from politics of mudslinging, hate and divisive speech and attacking of personalities. Malawians would also want to see political leaders that respect the rule of law by letting the MPS do its work without interference.
Malawi is the second African country to have its presidential election cancelled after Kenya, where opposition parties opted out of the rerun due to violence. Aren’t we replicating the Kenyan example? Aren’t these deliberate efforts to thwart the holding of the poll courts ordered in a ruling Mutharika and MEC opposed fervently?
QLooking forward, what role is CCJP playing to make peace in these troubled times?
Politically Malawi is degenerating into a politically polarised society as elements of regionalism, tribalism, ethnicity and political intolerance have taken centre stage in our politics. Credibility in the election management process has also been questioned greatly based on the experiences in the 2019 elections. In this regard, CCJP is currently working on enhancing social cohesion and peace building by engaging communities, religious, traditional and political leaders. Dissemination of peace messages based on emerging issues on the political landscape has been one of the focal aspects. Our diocesan offices are also mobilising eligible voters, through voter and civic education, to take part in the fresh election so as to avert potential voter apathy and voter fatigue. We have also been engaging different national electoral stakeholders on how well we can collectively contribute to a free, fair, peaceful, inclusive and credible fresh election.
Further, CCJP is planning to mount voter awareness campaigns on the 50+1 system of determining the majority in a presidential election. This aspect seems to have been neglected but the citizens need adequate electoral information on the same to make informed decisions and political choices. Media advocacy activities for civic education and mobilisation of voters are another vehicle for CCJP to promote peace and social cohesion. n