Although democracy cannot be reduced to conducting elections, there is firm consensus that there can never be a democracy without elections. This is not any form of elections. The elections should be and should be seen to be free and fair. While there are many actors, the elections management body is probably the most critical in making sure that elections are free and fair.
The failure in elections management can render useless every good input and the very essence of elections. Whether through incompetence or outright bias and corruption by the electoral management body, unwanted leaders can be legitimised by flawed elections. This undermines the trust that people need to have in the electoral process. In the short term, this may lead to violence as the electorate feel cheated. In the long run, it could lead to voter apathy as voters find no meaning in elections. This is a real danger to democracy consolidation.
Examples from African countries whose elections resulted into violent conflicts are not uncommon. The dismal performance of the elections management body is very vivid in these cases. Kenya’s 2007 experience is one of such cases. The Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) failed to take charge of itself and failed the electoral process. The chairperson of the ECK had to make a shocking admission that he did not know who had won the elections amid widespread irregularities. The commission had failed to manage the process and some members were partisan. Similar failures in electoral commissions can be noted in other countries such as Zimbabwe and Ivory Coast.
As Malawi approaches 2014, every investment in the elections will be a sheer waste if no attention is adequately devoted to the role of the Malawi Electoral Commission. The logistical organisation should up to standard. More importantly, the political legitimacy in appearance and operations should as much as possible be above board.
The history of the conduct of elections shows our electoral process needs to be reworked and improved. In 1999, 2004 as well as 2009 presidential elections, the results were not only questioned but also contested in court. This suggests the concerned parties were not satisfied with how the process was handled. Prior to 2009 elections, opposition parties petitioned the courts against the unilateral decision by the president to appoint members of the commission. This was a clear indication that the manner in which the commissioners were appointed already undermined their legitimacy.
The concerns about the commission are also shared by the wide population of the electorate. Because of the nature of the appointing process, some Malawians have suggested that the appointing power should not be in the hand of the president. For example, according to African Governance Report of 2012 by the UNECA and UNDP, 93 percent of respondents say that the commission should be chosen by an independent body. In the same vein, Afrobarometer survey results show that the commission has consistently suffered deficiency of solid trust among Malawians.
According to Afrobarometer, the majority of Malawians either have no trust or have low levels of trust in MEC. The surveys show that only 49 percent in 1999, 38 percent in 2003; 41 percent in 2005; 43 percent in 2008; and 41 percent in 2012 of Malawians say have a lot or high level of trust in MEC.
Moving forward, there are three critical points that will shape the image of the current and future MEC. The very first point is to do with the process of choosing and the composition of the commission. The commission should be acceptable to the key stakeholders, especially political parties.
The current commission was constituted in consultation with political parties. The commissioners are nominees of various political parties, which gives reasonable hope that its conduct will be politically balanced. This hope can be dashed if the commissioners work to advance the interests of their respective parties. This was one of the problems that damaged the work of the electoral commission in Ivory Coast
Equally important is the independence of the commission. The institution should conduct itself in an independent way. It should also be seen to be doing so. As presented by the AGR results, 67 percent of the respondents argue the MEC is not independent. This is an entity that should not be under pressure from any party if it is to truly perform. Partly, this calls for all stakeholders to make sure that government keeps away from MEC’s business. Politically motivated closures of the MEC, as happened in December 2010 by President Mutharika, are a real threat to the independence of the commission and should be buried in our history.
Further, MEC needs to show its relevance by reflecting on and seriously consider how it regulates the campaign period. According to various local and international election observer missions, the conduct of this phase of election has undermined the fairness of our elections. Specifically, there have been constant problems with the use and abuse of public media. The best MEC has done so far is to publicise the problem. This calls for action by all stakeholders to make sure that the commission has the teeth to regulate the campaign.
In the long term, there is need to examine the institutional framework of management of elections. Instead of vesting powers in the president to appoint commissioners and making MEC accountable to the president, the commission would better be independent. The financing of the institution should also be protected. Only through such mechanisms can we arrest feeble excuses by the Executive when it chooses not to fund elections, as has been the case with the local government elections over the past years