To understand why our Constitution protects the tenure of the vice-president, one needs to grasp two forms of democracy: representative and direct democracy. Representative democracy allows for the election of representatives (normally members of parliamentarian [MPs], senators or councillors) who are then empowered to make decisions on behalf of their constituents for a specified term. Direct democracy makes it possible for individuals to contribute directly to public decision making.
Most countries use a combination of these forms of democracy, but the permutations of their application to specific public institutions and positions differ markedly. In Malawi, the president and vice-president are elected directly by the electorate. Once elected, both enjoy security of tenure. They cannot be removed unless they have been convicted of a serious violation of the Constitution or written law or have become incapacitated.
In protecting the offices of the president and vice-president, the drafters of the Constitution placed direct democracy above representative democracy. MPs have little room to remove either the president or vice president. By the same reasoning, the constitution does not allow the president to dismiss the vice president. It could be argued that since the president is elected directly he or she should have the power to dismiss his or her vice president. Our constitutional set-up does not allow this because this would undermine direct democracy.
This does not mean that the president has no say on who becomes vice-president. He or she has unlimited choice in fact, since our constitution does not regulate the nomination of runningmates. This is something the constitution has left to political machinations. In practice, presidential candidates nominate their own running mates, in consultation with their party constituents or leadership. Once the nomination is made and the two candidates are paired up to contest in a presidential election, the election to their respective offices becomes a triumph of direct democracy rather than of party or individual nomination. Both owe their election to the electorate.
In the Malawian context, the direct election of the president and vice-president is not only relevant to the relationship between the two and Parliament; it is also relevant to the important question of succession. If the president dies, becomes incapacitated or is impeached, the vice president is constitutionally expected to ascend to the presidency.
This arrangement is itself rooted in direct democracy. According to our constitutional scheme, the person who holds the highest political office in the land has to have direct electoral support. One cannot just ascend to that office via a process controlled by elected representatives in Parliament.
In this way, the Malawi Constitution is very similar to that of the United States. In that country, too the president and vice-president are elected through a college system, and not through a voting process in congress or senate. Once elected, both the president and vice-president have security of tenure along the lines established by our Constitution.
By contrast, in South Africa and England, the electorate does not have the power to elect the president or prime minister. That is done by MPs in Parliament. In both countries, the president or the prime minister appoints and can dismiss the vice-president or deputy prime minister. In both countries, the choice of the head of State or government is determined through a process of representative democracy, and of the vice-president or deputy prime minister by appointment. The result is that the tenure of neither the prime minister or the president nor their deputies is secure. The former can be dismissed by Parliament through a vote of no confidence and the latter at the whim of the president or prime minister.
It is clear, therefore, that the defining feature of the presidential schemes of the two sets of countries lies in the method by which these offices are elected. But does this mean that the vice-president can behave any how without censure? Can the two be forced to work together even when the relationship between them has irretrievably broken down? How can the president and vice-president reinforce democracy and accountability in Malawi? These are the issues to be addressed in the final part of this article.