In the pantheon of democratic theory and practice, elections are lauded as the ultimate form of accountability for elected duty bearers. This is the case because ‘we the people’ wield our ballot power to cast the ‘political demons’ and kick ‘the rascals’ out. As parliamentary turnover remains high or increases, the praise for ‘we the people’ gets louder for it shows that we are intolerable of nonperformance of politicians. We replace them, hopefully with better performers, only to discover they are yet another bunch of ‘more of the same’. Thus, our ballot power is exercised in futility as ‘we the people’ engage in a conundrum that speaks loudly about the fallacy of electoralism i.e. the belief that the election is a panacea of all the development and governance challenges that characterise the political economy of Malawi.
Afrobarometer surveys show that the Malawi Parliament is one of the most disapproved institutions. The proportion of Malawians that disapprove of Parliament’s performance increased from 46 percent in 2005 to 62 percent in 2008 and 64 percent in 2014. This trend is matched with a high parliamentary turnover of over 70 percent in the last four general elections—a pattern that indicates the fallacy of electoralism. What explains this phenomenon and how does it impact on the accountability function of Parliament?
High parliamentary turnover originates in the crisis of expectations which is based on an incongruence of models of political representation between voters and the parliamentarians. Many voters, according to Afrobarometer data, expect parliamentarians to behave and conduct their business as ‘delegates of their constituents’ to Parliament. However, a survey of Malawian parliamentarians in 2016 showed that trustee and mandate models of political representation are favoured more by members of Parliament (MPs) than the delegate model. A delegate model of political representation requires the parliamentarian to regularly consult with constituents on almost everything and take instructions on how to respond or vote on any issue that comes before Parliament. Under this model, parliamentarians are even expected to reside in their constituencies and are practically expected to act as the generous Father Christmas or the Patron of social welfare for constituents. Political representation as trusteeship means “to serve one’s constituents by the exercise of ‘mature judgment’ and ‘enlightened conscience’. Parliamentarians are required to behave as trustees of constituencies—acting in the way they think is in the best interests of their constituents. Extensive consultations with constituents is not necessary. Under the mandate model, the effective agency of representation is the political party rather than the parliamentarian. By winning seats, a party gains a popular mandate that authorises it to pursue policies and programmes it outlined during the election campaign. It justifies party unity and party discipline in transacting parliamentary business.
Thus ‘we the people’ find that our ideal model of political representation is unrealised. We therefore vote them out, hoping the next set of parliamentarians will realise it. Our actions are even emboldened by civil society activism that judges the performance of parliamentarians almost exclusively on the basis of expectations that flow from the delegate model. The activism surely succeeds as reflected in a trend of high parliamentary turnover. But does it achieve accountability of the individual parliamentarians? Nope. In our practice, the election does not hold the parliamentarians accountable. It simply ejects them out. Politically, parliamentarians can only be held accountable when they are incumbents. When they lose seats, the arena for holding them accountable is very limited.
Does parliamentary turnover reinvigorate the accountability functions of Parliament? Only marginally. The high turnover means that every parliament gets over 70 percent new entrants, most of them without sufficient understanding and skills for carrying out the accountability or oversight work of Parliament. A good part of the first two years of a term is spent on learning ‘on the job’. If turnover was not as high, one would expect better performance in oversight work arising from cumulative knowledge, skilling and experience. But oversight work does not count a vote in the delegate model that is dominant among the electorate!
The turnover trend undermines prospects for better parliamentary accountability by giving many parliamentarians a short time horizon. The uncertainty of re-election generates incentives for individual parliamentarians to maximise short term personal interests rather than long term public interests that associate with the accountability work of Parliament. The logic is that being a parliamentarian is so transitory that it does not merit serious personal investment.
Thus, parliamentary turn over illustrates democratic consciousness of voters and the need for a better performing Parliament but undermines the political institutional capacity of the Parliament for oversight work due to inadequate cumulative knowledge and experience of a critical mass of parliamentarians.
*Henry Chingaipe is a governance and development specialist.