The United Democratic Front (UDF), which this week relocated from opposition to government benches, yesterday woke up to the reality of its decision by discovering that it has no voice and identity in Parliament.
UDF was not on the schedule of opposition political parties to respond to the State of the Nation Address, which President Peter Mutharika delivered on Tuesday because 11 of its members of Parliament (MPs) are now sitting on the government side.
The government side, occupied by Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), gave the role of seconding the motion on debate on State of the Nation Address to Lillian Patel of UDF who was booed by the opposition side and received interjections at the start of her address lauding the achievement that Mutharika outlined in his address.
Opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP) MPs questioned the decision by Speaker Richard Msowoya to include Patel as UDF chief whip in the business committee when the party will no longer have a leader or representation in the House.
The Speaker was apparently unprepared for the questions that followed his decision that Patel would remain in the business committee.
He promised to consult with the business committee on the way forward and report back to the House as soon as he was able.
However, there is no memorandum of understanding (MoU) to support the arrangement as Patel’s request to sit MPs on the government side did not contain such information, but explained that UDF would remain members of the party.
Dedza South West MP Clement Mlombwa (MCP) cited Standing Order 155, which states that the business committee shall comprise the Speaker, leader of the House, leader of opposition, leaders of parties not in government and opposition party whips.
Observed Mlombwa: “Following the announcement that UDF chief whip will be part of the business committee but not the leader [Lucius Banda], what will happen to the leader? Emphasis should be on the leader of the party in keeping with the spirit of the new Standing Orders which cleared such anomalies”.
Salima North MP Kaphamtengo Yona (MCP) also queried whether the position of leader of UDF had become vacant since the “the leader is on the opposition side while his followers are on the other side.”
He was apparently referring to Balaka North MP Lucius Banda’s bold decision to remain on the opposition benches while 11 of his UDF colleagues went with the flow and relocated to the government side as per the party’s decision.
Lilongwe Msozi South MP Vitus Dzoole Mwale (MCP) went as far as describing the situation as a constitutional crisis.
He said: “A constitutional crisis has been created by this move and it is important that this House should understand how and why this arrangement has happened, especially in relation to Section 65.”
Under Section 65 of the Constitution, an MP is deemed to have contravened the provision if the member ceases to be a member of a party or joins another party represented in Parliament.
But UDF described its partnership with DPP as a ‘parliamentary coalition’.
Private practice lawyer David Kanyenda maintained his legal opinion that since UDF MPs have not relinquished their party membership, Section 65 cannot catch them.
This stance was supported by associate professor of law Edge Kanyongolo of Chancellor College who argued that by just physically moving to the government side, UDF MPs had not contravened the spirit of Section 65, which describes the process of “crossing the floor”.
UDF has 11 MPs seated on the government side, which has increased DPP’s numerical strength in the 193-member National Assembly to 63, excluding Banda and Second Deputy Speaker of Parliament Clement Chiwaya who are UDF, but not affected by the move.
The opposition has also lost out as it now has 80 MPs on its side from MCP, People’s Party (PP) one from Alliance for Democracy (Aford) and another from UDF. The rest are independents who sit on the government side, but have not indicated political affiliation.