Results from Tuesday’s local government by-election in Matenje Ward in Kasungu North West Constituency have displayed continuation of a trend where voters are ignoring ward councillors through low turnout.
During the by-election, only 19.6 percent of the 15 760 registered voters turned out to cast their votes, a development Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) chairperson Jane Ansah yesterday bemoaned as worrisome.
“The Local Government Elections [LGEs] are equally important as the Parliamentary and Presidential Elections.
“Effectiveness of the local government system starts with the quality of the councillors that get elected. The commission expects all stakeholders to join hands with it in sensitising the public to this fact and the need for the electorate to vote in Local Government Elections,” she said when she announced results of the Matenje Ward by-elections at a news conference in Blantyre.
Except when LGEs have been held alongside Presidential and Parliamentary Elections, voter turnout has been low since the dawn of multiparty democracy through a June 14 1993 National Referendum. The first LGEs held in November 2000 registered a paltry national turnout of 14 percent while subsequent by-elections for ward councilors have not passed the 40 percent mark in terms of turn out.
Why does the electorate not feel the urge to take part in exclusive LGEs despite councillors being catalysts of development at grass roots level; hence, deserving better? Could it be because society has tended to place greater value on members of Parliament (MPs) who have two platforms—at local council and National Assembly levels?
Following the adoption of the Decentralisation Policy, local government councils have embraced increased responsibilities that have come with flow of colossal sums of money at their disposal to manage demand-driven development projects with councillors in the fray.Why then would someone ignore such a public officer?
Reacting to the above and other questions relating to the cause of the voter apathy yesterday, a political scientist and Malawi Local Government Association (Malga) said the absence of councillors for over a decade—from 1994 to 2000 and from 2004 to 2014—is the major contributing factor.
In a telephone interview, Happy Kayuni, a professor in the department of political and administrative studies at Chancellor College, a constituent college of the University of Malawi (Unima), said there is likelihood that people do not value councillors due to their prolonged absence.
He said: “The main reason is that in Malawi we have never valued local government because there was a time when we had local government institutions, but on paper and what happened is that it took a long time before elections took place.”
To woo more voters, he said there is need for awareness on the roles played by councillors and MPs. He observed that some of councillors’ roles are duplicated by MPs and traditional leaders in some cases.
Malga executive director Charles Chunga agreed with Kayuni that the absence of councillors for over a decade in the multiparty era tops the list of factors
He said other factors could be that some of the councillors elected between 2014 and 2019 might not have performed to people’s expectations; hence, the electorate seeing no value in voting.
In the Matenje Ward by-elections, Ansah, a judge of the Malawi Supreme Court of Appeal, declared Malawi Congress Party (MCP) candidate Descent Msatero Chipangula winner with 1 489 votes.
Trailing him were Nelson Maseko (Democratic Progressive Party-DPP) with 1 203 votes, Vincent Phiri (Mbakuwaku Movement for Development-MMD) with 119 votes while independents Clifford Joseph Mbewe and Shadreck Mvula got 185 and 55 votes, in that order.
Ansah said MEC will engage stakeholders, including voters, to establish why they shun voting in LGEs.
MEC records show that Bembeke Ward in Dedza District Council, with a 9.36 percent voter turnout during a November 2016 by-election, was the lowest.
Section 6 of the Local Government Act outlines the role of councillors as including making policy and decisions on local governance, promotion of infrastructural and economic development through formulation, approval and execution of district development plans and making by-laws for good governance, among others.
MPs, on the other hand, play a representative, legislative and oversight role.
Malawi has 35 local government councils broken down as follows: four cities (Blantyre, Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Zomba), two municipal (Luchenza in Thyolo and Kasungu), one town council (Mangochi) and 28 districts.
Between 2005/06 and 2015/16 financial years, local government councils collectively recorded increased funding from K3 billion to K34.2 billion, according to a 2015 Tilitonse Fund Report which also highlighted capacity challenges that resulted in numerous queries bordering on fraud and limited accountability of resources from central government.