Malawi goes to polls on May 20 to choose a president, parliamentarians and ward councillors. With civic education in progress, there are doubts as to whether voters really understand the importance of councillors and as such, whether they will be able to vote for them. GEORGE MHANGO seeks the views of Steven Duwa, chairperson of the Malawi Electoral Support Network (Mesn) on these issues.
Q: How far have you gone with civic education for the May 20 Tripartite Elections, particularly on local government/councillors?
Generally, the civic education has tended to focus on the meaning of tripartite elections since these are going to be held for the first time in Malawi, why citizens should participate and make informed electoral choices come May 20 2014 based on issues and not material benefits, handouts, ethnicity or religion. Deliberate efforts are being made by civic educators to sensitise the masses, of course, to the role of councillors versus those of members of Parliament (MP).
Do you think people understand the Local Government Act and what is expected of councillors as compared to MPs, considering we have not had councillors in a long time?
It would appear that civic educators have not reached out to the masses with uniform messages on the tripartite elections by way of emphasising educating the masses on local government system and structures. The messages have general information on the local government and the roles of the various stakeholders in the local government. Again, with the civic education targeting the various electoral phases and activities, civic educators have had limited resources and time to drill the masses in local government. It is my considered view that as lot more needs to be done to prepare citizens on the local polls.
Q: Some critics say much focus on voter and civic education is being put on presidential and parliamentary candidates unlike local polls.
Yes, more focus and emphasis is on the Presidential and Parliamentary Elections (PPE) for the simple reason that these elections have been there before and voters are familiar with these elections. Another reason is that clear roles and responsibilities between councillors and MPs have not been embodied on the civic education information yet and issues about local government polls are just mentioned in passing. Thirdly, people still view councillors as inferior to MPs and unless there is genuine information on this, there are fears that many will treat the election of councillors as not so important.
Q: In the event that most voters do not fully appreciate the need for councillors, as some critics argue, could this not lead to voter apathy for the local government polls?
In the absence of concerted efforts to deliver a civic education strategy focusing on Local Government Elections in general and councillors in particular, the likelihood of voters only focusing on the election of MPs and president is high, but not necessarily voter apathy.
Are NGOs now financially equipped to carry out civic education on a large scale?
Not all accredited civil society organisations (CSOs) can claim to have received enough resources to conduct an effective voter education. On average, faith-based institutions have received reasonable resources to conduct civic education. The main challenge has been lack of coordination among civic education providers. So far, there has been no effort to review the whole process.
How widespread are NGOs following concerns that some places are not reachable for civic education?
Ideally, NGOs were funded based on the mapping done by the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) on the basis of each organisation’s constituency. However, lack of funding for some accredited NGOs, delayed funding, and inadequate funds disbursed have made it difficult to spread out to all wards and constituencies. Some areas have not been fully covered.
How are you handling new voters so they understand how to vote in the tripartite elections?
MEC is yet to provide information on how people will vote and until then, accredited organisations may not do much.
Q: What challenges are you facing since the launch of voter and civic education campaigns?
Challenges, so far, include the lack of coordination and supervision among civic education providers, inadequate resources and delayed funding.
Q: Any successes?
Yes. The successful conduct of the voter registration where the turn up was impressive was partly due to an effective civic education. Even at the moment, voters are openly discussing issues they would want elected leaders to address in the coming five years following the implementation of issue-based civic education by a number of accredited CSOs with funding from the Department for International Development (DfID) through the National Democratic Institute (NDI). The other success story is that cashgate has become an election issue as voters have been sensitised to the issue during issue-based sensitisation meetings.
Q: Any general comment you want to make?
To all voters, we appeal to you to patronise all political rallies when the official campaign period opens so that you can assess the candidates fairly. The media should be instrumental in giving out information on the elections as they have the capacity to reach out to as many people as possible. We appeal to all politicians to engage voters on issues and not foul language that has potential to trigger a crisis.
If I Were
President of the Republic of Malawi, I would appreciate that when one of the country’s biggest referral hospitals is forced to close its mortuary because the equipment is not functioning then something is terribly wrong when it comes to government priorities.
If I were you ma’am, I would realise that when government cannot provide funds to repair the refrigerator compressors for Kamuzu Central Hospital, (KCH) mortuary, but there is enough to cater for my trips all over the country to preside over the elevation of chiefs, a task that can be done by a district commissioner, then something is terribly wrong.
How I wish I were my good ‘ole mum that is JB, because I would appreciate that when bodies become decomposed at a big hospital like KCH and authorities are forced to bury them at a mass grave, then I have every reason to conduct some soul-searching and admit that my government has lost the plot.
If only I were the President, I would cut my trips so as to save money to cater for such very important needs.
I would further realise mum, that we are heading towards election time and it is such things that people consider when choosing a leader.
If I were JB, I would appreciate that while some of my aides might be painting a picture that all is well, there is a lot of home work to do mum. Time is of essence and it seems not to be on my side.
That is if only I were Joyce Banda, unfortunately, I am just her son from another mother. Odiii uko Amayi adutseko, osawapingapinga iyayi!