It is disappointing that the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) is so defensive about the botched first phase of the voter registration exercise in Dedza, Kasungu and Salima.
Elections are a very emotive issue. This is because they are a process which puts people in power or remove them from power. It is therefore important for the nation to hire an electoral body comprising officers who are level headed and ready to treat each and every issue that comes on its table with sobriety.
That the first phase of registration in the three districts has registered less than half of the projected voters. For example, out of the 400 000 projected registered voters in Salima only 170 000 have been registered. This is a disaster of no small magnitude. If I were MEC I would have gone back to the drawing board to do some soul searching.
What is even more disappointing if not annoying is what the MEC chairperson Jane Ansah is blaming for the disaster. Ansah says it is because of the crop of politicians we have in the country. According to her, politicians stay away from the people once put in office. Is this evidence-based? Such statements border on carelessness and naïvity. The media has extensively quoted Ansah as saying there is nothing MEC can do under the circumstances. Such a resigned fatalistic attitude towards a catastrophe is a disaster in the making. There is so much at stake, so much MEC can do, so much MEC should have done and, I can guarantee, so much MEC will later be forced to do at a huge cost.
MEC should not be prosecutor, jury and judge all in one body. The MEC we, the taxpayers hired is supposed to be a listening body. It is supposed to learn to do some self evaluation, sit back, critically digest the complaints from various stakeholders and act on them accordingly.
There is abundance evidence that the poor voter registration is because there was not enough sensitisation to encourage people to register. MEC should not dismiss this.
Members of Parliament who are key stakeholders in elections say one of the main problems is that the first phase started or was happening when they were at Parliament and therefore did not have much time to sensitise their constituents on the importance of registering. Why should MEC dismiss this as unfounded?
Some stakeholders have said the first phase was marred with lots of technical glitches—both organisationally and logistically. Malawi Electoral System Network (Mesn), for example, says there was a delay to accredit CSOs to conduct sensitisation. Others have said there was persistent breakdown of registration equipment, lack or late delivery of fuel and gensets, weak solar panels and inadequate registration materials. Merely dismissing all these without contrary evidence is a sure recipe for disaster. No MEC commissioner has raised his or her hand and dismissed this. Being the first phase, MEC itself had a lot of things to learn from the exercise as it unfolded.
One proposal by the National Elections Systems Trust (NEST) is that the trial phase should have been spread in all the three regions by picking one district in each region. That sounds very logical. This would have provided MEC an opportunity to compare figures while at the same time spread the error across all the regions. Malawi being very fragmented politically, this error would have affected all the regions equally.
Voter registration exercises have been botched before due to poor planning and other unforeseen circumstances. Such things are bound to happen again.
Funding should not be MEC’s problem. It is taxpayers and development partners who provide the funds for all electoral activities. As implementers of the elections, MEC’s job should be accommodative of any eventuality in their calendar of events. Statements like the one by commissioner Moffat Banda that MEC works independent of government are most unfortunate. How can MEC be independent when it is funded by the government and the commissioners are appointed by the Executive branch of government?
Verdict: In the balance of things, all is not lost. MEC will do itself as well as Malawians a lot of favour to listen to the people and do what they mandated it to do with diligence. MEC should do everything possible to clear the impression that it is not aiding rigging. MEC will go back to the three districts and re-open registration.