Why is it that Malawian politicians feel compelled to steal from the State on a massive scale, repeatedly, with impunity, and without any remorse? How do we stop this behaviour?
These are some of the questions ordinary Malawians ask over and over. I would like to suggest that part of the answer lies in the lack of understanding of the role of the State and its institutions in a democracy and of the factors that the electorate should consider when choosing who to vote for.
It is not uncommon during electoral campaigns for parliamentary candidates to increase the level of support to their constituencies. Such support varies from cash handouts and food parcels to individual members of a constituency, and providing transport to ferry the sick or dead, to donations of medical and other supplies to clinics, donations to schools and bankrolling more costly development projects, such as roads, bridges, boreholes, hospitals, schools and so on.
While these activities decrease after electoral results are released, they continue throughout the electoral ‘off season’. For the most part, these activities constitute direct service provision to the community which should be done by State departments and institutions in an organised fashion. Some of these activities also constitute corruption of the electorate, where consideration in the form of a service, money or donation is given in return for a vote.
The demand for handouts and direct help to constituents that parliamentary contestants face is enormous. Most of the contestants wind up bankrupt or severely financially drained after elections. And yet they feel compelled to take part in these malpractices because of the fear that they would lose the elections to those who engage in these activities enthusiastically.
Unfortunately, in condoning and promoting these practices, parliamentary contestants promote the misconception that members of Parliament (MPs) are direct service providers. When MPs see direct service provision as their primary responsibility, they divert their attention from their core duties related to law making, Executive oversight and debate over issues of national importance. The nation loses in the process since the absence of rigorous parliamentary debate means that the government will act based on insufficiently digested policies and without the much needed oversight from parliamentarians.
Service provision is the responsibility of government departments and agencies. MPs do not have the capacity and know-how to discharge this responsibility. This explains why, when they take on this role, MPs do so haphazardly and in a manner that is not sustainable.
In order to enhance their capacity to provide services to their constituencies, MPs seek to increase the pool of their financial resources by engaging in all kinds of behaviour, some of which are illicit or unethical, such as claiming allowances without attending the meetings at all or in full, bartering their voting rights to willing political parties, and demanding excessive salary increments. Furthermore, what has come to be known as ‘Cashgate’ is a political crime committed primarily to finance direct service provision to constituencies so that parliamentary contestants from particular parties have a competitive edge.
All these gimmicks result in the diversion of huge amounts of money from the organised State machinery for service provision to political patronage and electoral corruption. With diminished resources, the State cannot provide social services, which then creates a social service delivery deficit that must be filled by other actors. Since political contestants have to show that they are concerned about the collapse of service provision in their constituencies, they feel that they need to demonstrate that commitment by directly providing some of those services. This only kicks off another cycle of misconceived responsibilities and misplaced expectations and the consequent diversion of public funds.
It is clear that individual politicians, especially MPs, cannot reasonably be expected to provide social services. This is a practice that must be stopped, in the interests of all political contestants including MPs and of the general public. Parliament as a whole has a duty to raise public awareness about the nature of its constitutional responsibilities and those of its individual members. Furthermore, Parliament must seriously consider passing legislation that prohibits certain kinds of behaviour during electoral campaigns so that elections are won and lost not based on the money that individual contestants flash at the electorate, but based on the ideas and ideals that the candidates stand for and commit to.