Politicians will find it harder to get elected while voters are poised for more credible polling outcomes if Malawi can swallow the cocktail of recommended changes to its electoral system.
The recommended changes—consolidated by the National Task Force on Electoral Reforms following nationwide consultations—fall under four broad electoral objectives:
- To enhance political legitimacy, inclusiveness and representativeness in the election of all officials;
- To improve the coherency, integrity and adequacy of Malawi’s electoral legal framework;
- To improve the impartiality, effectiveness and credibility of election administration and management; and,
- To improve civic competence of citizens on electoral matters.
Under the first objective of enhancing political legitimacy, inclusiveness and representativeness in the election of all officials, the task force has, among other things, endorsed that the standard for nomination of presidential candidates be raised from 10 supporting signatures per district to 1 000 in 90 percent of the country’s 28 districts.
This, according to the task force in its July 2015 report titled Consolidated Issues and Recommendations for Electoral Reforms in Malawi, is in response to people’s demands during consultations that a president must enjoy nationwide support and legitimacy.
For National Assembly Elections, the task force’s consensus is that nomination requirements should jump from 10 to 250 supporting signatures per constituency whereas that of Local Government Elections moves from 10 to 50 per ward.
It also recommends that instead of the President being elected through the current First-Past-The Post (FPTP) or simple majority election system where the candidate who gets a majority of the valid votes cast wins the election and forms government, the candidate must in future win with an absolute majority (50 percent-plus-one).
If none of the candidates obtains enough votes in the election, says the task force co-chaired by Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) commissioner the Reverend Emmanuel Chimkwita Phiri and Steve Duwa of Malawi Electoral Support Network (Mesn)—a re-run involving the top two candidates in the first round should be held under what is called a Two-Round System (TRS).
“The TRS will ensure that the winning candidate receives a strong popular mandate to govern. It will also significantly reduce the dependence of politicians on region-tribe anchor strategies as they will be compelled to seek broad-based support to reach enough votes and thereby reach out to tribes and regions other than their own. In short, the TRS presents an incentive to promote political unity, cohesion and accommodation in the country in addition to shoring up the legitimacy of the President,” explains the task force, drawing lessons from Malawi’s past elections.
Out of the five general elections since the transition to multiparty democracy in 1993, observed the task force, three candidates received less than 50 percent of the popular vote.
In the first post-independence multiparty elections in 1994, Bakili Muluzi won the presidency with 47 percent although later, in his second term, won with 52 percent in 1999.
In 2004, the late Bingu wa Mutharika won with 36 percent, but the victory surged to 66 percent five years later in 2009 while his young brother, Peter, in 2014 secured the presidency with about 36 percent of the votes cast.
While some people suggested proportional representation in which the party that wins a specified minimum number of seats in Parliament should form government, the proposal was rejected on the basis that it would change the country’s system of government from a presidential to a parliamentary one and the president would not be directly elected by the people, among other reasons.
New system for MPs?
On parliamentary elections, the task force recommends adoption of a proportional system, in particular, the party list whereby the entire country was treated as a single constituency, or it is divided up into a number of large multi-member constituencies (MMCs).
Reads the report: “The MMC was preferred and is recommended for adoption because it has an inherent high potential to improve political representation, legitimacy of political parties and political inclusion.”
It observed that the single member constituency FPTP system of electing members of Parliament (MPs) has had a number of challenges for political representation, legitimacy and inclusion, citing vote shares in the last general election.
For example, it was noted that in the 2014 Tripartite Elections, with only 17 percent of votes cast in parliamentary elections, Malawi Congress Party (MCP) got up to 26.4 percent of seats.
Similarly, People’s Party (PP), which got 18.1 percent of votes cast in the same elections, secured only 13.5 percent of the seats in Parliament.
The task force also recommended that the MMC should be constructed around the present 28 administrative districts as its multi-member electoral constituencies.
How would MMC work?
“The actual number of seats per each MMC would objectively be determined based on population variables. It is, therefore, possible that the actual number of MPs per district may vary from the current number even in the event that the size of the National Assembly remains at 193,” explains the task force.
It said contesting political parties in a given MMC would then be required to present a closed list of candidates based on the number of seats available, adding that a formula will be devised to distribute the seats in the MMC proportionally to political parties and independent candidates if they amass a minimum proportion of votes.
By aligning the MMC with existing boundaries of administrative districts, explains the task force, the system will retain, but modify “the much needed link” between the elected representatives and the electorate in the given district.
It said MMCs would also remove the requirement to redraw constituency boundaries as the geographical area will be fixed and seats will be moved between MMCs based on demographic changes rather than redrawing boundaries.
The task force further recommends that the adoption of the MMC approach should be accompanied with legislation that will require political parties to construct their party lists using the formula of gender parity such that for every man on the list, there would be a woman in what is called the zebra formula to ensure that the National Assembly has significant gender representation.
Reforms under Goal II
Under the second goal of improving the coherency, integrity and adequacy of Malawi’s electoral legal framework, some of the task force’s recommendations include integrating the Parliamentary and Presidential Act and the Local Government Election Act into a single Election Act.
The task force has also endorsed the legislation of a Referendum law to detail the provisions and requirements to be met for a referendum; enactment of a Political Party Campaign and Finance law to oversee political party financing and campaign funding. It also recommends introduction of a law to administer the period of transition from the date of the election of the president to their inauguration to ensure sufficient time for a petition to be resolved prior to inauguration.
Other recommendations under this goal include amending Section 77 of the Constitution to establish the age of voter eligibility to be 18 years of age or older, on the day of the election; change Section 67(1) of the Constitution for general elections to be conducted in September rather than May.
The task force says it also found that having polls in May is problematic in Malawi because most voters are busy in the field during this period and, being rainy season, many roads are impassable, which provides increased logistical problems.
Changes on Goal III, IV
To achieve the third goal of improving the impartiality, effectiveness and credibility of election administration and management, the task force recommends, among other things, that MEC should draft, implement and publish its Standing Orders to make the roles of the Commission and Secretariat transparent.
Changes to the Electoral Commissions Act are also being proposed to make the commission report to the National Assembly and not to the President as is currently the case.
Under the fourth goal of improving civic competence of citizens on electoral matters, the task force recommends that MEC should focus on voter information and education; that the commission becomes a stakeholder in civic education, not a duty bearer.
Commenting on the proposed reforms, University of Malawi’s Chancellor College political science lecturer Boniface Dulani said it was imperative that electoral rules be reviewed from time to time to ensure they conform to the wishes of those they are supposed to serve.
“In the last Afrobarometer survey in 2014, 58 percent of Malawians, held the view that the way elections are done in the country do not adequately reflect the views of voters.
“At a minimum, therefore, it is necessary as a country to reflect on the electoral rules and reform them in a way that would bring the results in line with the preferences of voter,” he said.
MEC spokesperson Sangwani Mwafulirwa said the electoral body will ensure that the recommendations are adopted considering that some of the proposals would need government’s involvement in changing of electoral laws.
He said there were other electoral reform issues that were administrative in nature and those MEC could adopt through its commission.
But he said MEC has no budget set for adoption of the recommendations since some of the proposals have no financial implications.
Members of the task force include MEC, Mesn, Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, Malawi Law Commission, Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC), National Initiative for Civic Education (Nice) Trust, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Public Affairs Committee (PAC), National Democratic Institute (NDI), Centre for Multiparty Democracy (CMD), NGO Gender Coordination Network, Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development.