National Initiative for Civic Education (Nice) Trust, has asked Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) to ensure transparency in determining null and void votes to avoid confusion.
The development follows ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)’s poor showing in the polls in which main opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP) won five of the six hotly-contested constituencies and wards. It also comes several months ahead of the country’s next tripartite elections in 2019.
Nice executive director Ollen Mwalubunju made the remarks when he presented a preliminary report on observations and recommendations of last Tuesday’s by-elections to the media in Blantyre on Friday. The report, Preliminary Observations by the National Initiative for Civic Education on the 17th October, 2017 By-elections, covers key events surrounding the October 17 by-elections namely pre-poll, polling and post-poll periods.
He said: “There were protracted disagreements between [election] monitors in some centres as regards what constitutes a valid, spoilt and null and void vote. Some of the votes were declared null and void when actually the voters’ intention and choice was clear.
“The principle of voters’ intention should be discussed and a way forward should be agreed by all electoral stakeholders before the 2019 polls to avoid electoral conflicts.”
Nice also recommends that MEC should re-engage electoral stakeholders ahead of the 2019 polls and come up with a clear consensus on what constitutes a valid or invalid vote, improve its security measure to enhance the secrecy of the ballot and adequately train its poll staff to curb voter apathy.
Mwalubunju also challenged political parties in the country to deploy “quality monitors” in future polls and educate their supporters on how to vote correctly instead of [just wasting time] castigating their opponents.
But in an email response to a questionnaire, MEC director of media and public relations, Sangwani Mwafulirwa said the electoral body is awaiting more reports from organisations accredited to monitor and observe the recent polls.
He said: “Engagement of stakeholders ahead of 2019 is an obvious thing. The Commission has always engaged stakeholders through the National Elections Consultative Forum [Necof] before implementing electoral activities.
Reacting to the report, DPP spokesperson Francis Kasaila accused Nice of retreating from its core mandate of providing high quality civic and voter education to Malawians.
Kasaila said Nice is using the recommendations as an excuse to evade its core responsibility of sensitising citizens on the electoral do’s and don’ts.
“It is very tricky that Nice itself is making those recommendations because that is their core responsibility. They should have been the first ones to accept that probably they have not done a good job themselves on voter education so that they can improve next time,” he said.
Kasaila added that DPP will do its part on civic and voter education but maintained that it remains the core mandate of Nice to train electoral stakeholders. He said his party expects Nice to be in the forefront in training the monitors.
Commenting on Kasaila’s reaction in a separate interview, Nice’s regional coordinator for the South Enock Chinkhuntha wondered why political parties would want to place the burden of political campaign on the body.
He said: “There are several other non-civic education factors that affect the voting process. For instance, in some cases the electorates are frustrated because elected leaders fail to deliver, others don’t vote in protest of their leaders’ imposition of candidates on them and we also have cases of political violence disturbing voter turnout.”
On his part, MCP deputy secretary general Eisenhower Mkaka agreed with Nice’s observation that there were indeed disagreements on what forms valid or invalid votes during last week’s polls.
“For example, somebody ticked in the right box for a DPP candidate and cancelled it and then he ticked twice in the box for an MCP candidate and clearly you could tell the intention of the voter. But then because there were marks in two boxes, one crossed, and the other with two ticks, people said that was an invalid vote.
“During the counting of votes you have different stakeholders and of greatest importance are political parties. Now if political party X thinks that the annulling of one vote would give them an upper hand, they will fight to have a vote annulled and vice versa,” he observed.
Mkaka appealed to all electoral stakeholders, including MEC, to jointly set up clear procedures to guide what is defined as null and void votes saying this is very crucial before 2019 elections take place.
He also said the party embraces voter education as an integral part of its political campaign.
In the report, Nice has pointed out various factors, including that the elections were generally tense, especially in Nsanje-Lalanje Constituency which recorded cases of intimidation, suspicion and violence.
Mwalubunju said the tense atmosphere was due to intense political campaigns mounted by President Peter Mutharika and his DPP, as well as Lazarus Chakwera alongside party companion Sidik Mia and participating MCP members of Parliament (MPs).
Said Mwalubunju: “[DPP and MCP] supporters were verbally aggressive towards each other and the campaign was characterised by hate-speeches, particularly in Nsanje Lalanje constituency.”
Mwalubunju commended MEC for successfully holding the polls whose turnout was 29 percent of the 160 000 registered voters.
During the official announcement of the by-election results in Blantyre last week, MEC chairperson Justice Jane Ansah commended political parties that contested the by-elections for a peaceful and issue-based campaign that was free of hate speeches. She, however, decried the violence that marred the elections in Nsanje-Lalanje Constituency.