–Accuses body of taking sides on Section 65 debate
–PAC says it was seeking clarification
Erstwhile opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) has accused the Public Affairs Committee (PAC) of agitating for the removal of its members of Parliament (MPs) through Section 65 of the Constitution which forbids crossing the floor.
UDF secretary general Kandi Padambo, chief whip in Parliament Lilian Patel and spokesperson Ken Ndanga led by party president Atupele Muluzi yesterday called for a meeting with PAC in Lilongwe to seek clarifications on the matter.
The PAC delegation was led by chairperson the Reverend Felix Chingota.
Speaking in an interview, Padambo confirmed that UDF requested the meeting with PAC after reading reports that the interfaith democracy watchdog and advocacy grouping last week met Speaker of Parliament Richard Msowoya to query if Section 65 did not apply to the 11 UDF MPs who have moved to the government benches following a ‘parliamentary coalition’ with Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
Said Padambo: “It was clear that there was a lot of misunderstandings and clarifications were made by both parties [during the meeting]. What we thought was the position of PAC that our MPs should be deemed to have crossed the floor was not the case. PAC told us that its role was to advocate constitutionalism.”
UDF leaders painstakingly explained the procedure which led to the decision to move to the government side, including seeking a legal opinion from a private lawyer before submitting a request to the Speaker to be moved to the government side.
Padambo said the UDF decision to move to the government side was also supported by a legal opinion from Attorney General Kalekeni Kaphale, who gave the Speaker the go-ahead to allocate UDF MPs seats of their choice.
“The president [Muluzi] assured PAC that if the legal opinion was such that going to the government side was crossing the floor, the UDF would have abided by that ruling,” he said.
Chingota said in an interview they had received assurance from UDF that the party would abide by the Constitution as its president pledged during the pre-election interface meetings.
“We explained that with what has happened [UDF move to government side] we sought an audience with the Speaker to understand if Section 65 did not apply in this case. That is all we wanted the Speaker to tell us and we explained to UDF that it was not up to PAC to judge, but the Speaker,” he said.
But Chingota said PAC express concern about apparent divisions in UDF which have seen Balaka North MP Lucius Banda, who was UDF leader in Parliament before the move, opting to remain on the opposition side while his 11 counterparts are now part of government.
Some concerned UDF followers, dissatisfied with the decision, have since called for the resignation of the party’s National Executive Committee within 30 days from May 5 and pave the way for an interim committee.
Lawyers have also given conflicting points of view on the status of UDF after the move that has seen the party lose identity and voice in the National Assembly as it is now part of government.
Constitutional law expert Edge Kanyongo, who is an associate professor of law at the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College, backed the UDF MPs, arguing Section 65 cannot whip them as they have not crossed the floor.
He said: “The section says one crosses the floor after resigning from their political party and joins another party in Parliament. In this case, I don’t think UDF MPs have resigned. I have not heard the party or the MPs announcing that they have joined the DPP. So, in my view, Section 65 does not apply on them.”
But another seasoned lawyer, Justin Dzonzi of Justice Link, said the current situation is a case where Section 65 should apply because of the divisions among the UDF MPs where some have moved to government benches while Banda has remained in the opposition.
Dzonzi’s position is also backed by South Africa-based legal scholar Danwood Chirwa who urges that the Speaker to declare vacant seats of UDF MPs who have relocated to the government benches.
Responding to an enquiry from The Nation on the issue, Chirwa, a professor of law at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, said the Speaker should whip UDF MPs with Section 65.
Said Chirwa: “In short, do I think there is a case for declaring UDF MPs to have crossed the floor? The answer is definitely yes.”
Chirwa said the Constitution sets minimum standards as well as ideals and goals towards which must be continually aspired.
The Speaker is on record as having said that his office can only act on the matter after being pushed or petitioned.