After meeting the Public Affairs Committee (PAC), President Peter Mutharika has appointed a government team to conduct dialogue with PAC. Our Reporter ALBERT SHARRA caught up with Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) executive director Timothy Mtambo to get his reaction on this and how government and the opposition can work better.
: The President has appointed a team of five to dialogue with PAC. What do you make of this in the wake of the last meeting between Mutharika and PAC which ended in a stalemate?
: Much as it might be a good decision, this should not be an opportunity for Mutharika to be running away from facing his people. For instance, he has been avoiding facing the Parliament. True leaders do not run away from their people; he should learn from United Kingdom, United States of America and even South Africa. President Zuma is always available to respond to questions in Parliament. The President has a constitutional mandate to provide answers to this country. We needed him in this team. The challenges this country have are serious and he has to be part and parcel of the process [to solve them].
He should not also just appoint people as rubber stamps or figureheads. I hope these people have decision-making powers. The problems Malawi has will need urgency and availability of leadership. We do not want people who will always say they want to consult the President [during meetings]. We also hope the people appointed have the capacity on the issues being raised by the citizens. If the team appointed will have decision-making powers and operate as professionals, we commend the President. But if the past behaviour of some members of the similar technical teams is anything to go by, we have reasons to worry that this may not take us anywhere.
We need genuine engagement, a dialogue that will have clear action points and time frames. We do not need open-ended resolutions. Malawi is lost. We must all play a part to bring it back and transformational leadership is a must.
How would you describe the relationship between government and the opposition so far?
Since the return of multiparty democracy in 1994, Malawians have observed an acrimonious relationship between government and the opposition both in and outside Parliament. Right from Bakili Muluzi to the current President, all we see is bad blood between the two sides. Of great concern is that such bad blood even spills over to Parliament where national interest is sacrificed in pursuit of political party egos.
Recently, we saw how a Parliament meeting gave way to senseless political fights between the government and the opposition, with some opposition parliamentarians getting arrested over questionable charges.
:Why do you think the opposition and government take each other as rivals?
:I would like to believe that the major causative factors are the country’s electoral laws which are democratically wanting, resulting into poor management of the electoral process. For instance, the first-past-the-post alias the simple majority and the hasty announcement of the electoral results—especially the presidential outcomes—are a thorn in the flesh of democracy. What is worse, the resultant swearing-in of the winning candidate is done before addressing fears of rigging and irregularities from the losing camps. As a consequence, the opposition always feels robbed of electoral victory.
In the same breadth, the simple majority rule undermines the mandate of
the incumbent to lead and implement government policies. It is not easy to expect a leader who got rejected by 67 percent of the voters to instantly rally the losing camp behind government’s vision and policies. It is possible but takes time, at times stretching to the next electoral year. On the other hand, the ruling party, driven by the ambition to get re-elected, always works to create a bad name for the opposition in face of the electorate.
That notwithstanding, the blatant disregard for national interests by both camps cannot be ruled out of the mix of factors fuelling the bad blood between the opposition and the government.
However, at the same time, competition between government and opposition is important for democracy as long as such competition is based on principles rather than trivia. A scenario where the opposition is criticising government over a flawed policy and piles pressure for government to reform the policy, such a competition is important as it is in public interest.
:How do you think the relationship can be improved?
:Based on the above, there are a number of ways in which such a relationship can be improved. The starting point should be the need for both government and opposition to understand their respective roles in a democratic set-up in the promotion of the public interests. Besides, to improve the relationship between the two, as a nation we must seriously interrogate the electoral laws to see whether there are solutions or the recipe to the fostering feud between the two sides.
Secondly, we in the civil society as well as other electoral stakeholders must embark on a vigorous voter and civic education campaign on the need to elect patriotic and well-meaning leaders as councillors, parliamentarians and President. Otherwise, our democracy cannot mature in the face of the power hungry opposition against the intolerant government.
Lastly, I would appeal to government to lead in creating an environment of dialogue and unity of purpose towards the national development agenda. The President should reach out to the opposition through various avenues such as holding national dialogue to find solutions to the country’s political and socio-economic challenges.
Most importantly, it is solely incumbent on both sides to know that Malawians are in dire need of patriotic, mature and well-meaning leaders to realise their democratic aspirations. The culture of naming and shaming should give room to contact and genuine dialogue for national good.
:Is there a clear mechanism for the opposition and government to effectively work together?
:There are quite a number of clear mechanisms which the opposition can use to reach out to government. One of them is through Parliament where they can constructively engage government on various issues. In some cases, the opposition can hold ad hoc meetings with the President and Cabinet. History has it that during the Joyce Banda era, some opposition leaders visited the State House to discuss the issues affecting the country with the President.
However, such meetings depend on government’s openness. It is important to point out that the relevance and impact of such meetings, based on history, have not been seen as they have often been seen as platforms the incumbents have used to soften the opposition or in some cases as a way of portraying a good picture to the donors and the public that the incumbent is open and inclusive in his or her approach to leadership.
This is why it is important that while we aspire for improved relationship between government and opposition, such a move should not be done at the expense of diluting the essence of the role of the opposition in government. Such relationship should be based on principles rather than self-interest. n