Debate, controversy on electoral bill rages on in Malawi …. As PAC threatens protest over parliament dilly-dallying

Dec 15, 2017

By Penelope Paliani-Kamanga

There has been drama and pressure on the government of Malawi over a bill proposing the amendment of the electoral system, especially in the presidential race, to adopt 50+1 instead of the present first-past-the-post system.

The climax of the whole hullabaloo is a threat by Malawi’s biggest quasi-religious group, Public Affairs Committee (PAC), to hold demonstrations this week in protest over government’s failure to take the bills to parliament.

The quest to mount pressure on the government to introduce the electoral reform bill for debate in the august house also took centre stage last week when leader of the opposition, Dr Lazarus Chakwera, walked out of the house in protest over the missing proposed amendment bill on the order paper.

“They deliberately said November will be the time, after having failed in the past. If we don’t do it now, it is never gonna happen. That’s why we have to do it now. And they must bring those reforms now,” said Chakwera.

He returned to the august house after government promised that it would put the bills for discussion this week.

But to the dismay of the opposition and other stakeholders, the contentious Constitution (Amendment) Bill, which provides for a president to be elected by a majority of more than 50 percent of the valid votes cast through direct, universal and equal suffrage and, where such majority is not obtained by any presidential candidate in the first poll, a second poll shall be held within 30 days with only two candidates who obtained the highest and second highest number of valid vote cast as the only candidates, was missing on the order paper.

Government instead circulated three bills, which are the Referendum Bill, the Electoral Commission (Amendment) Bill and the Assumption of Office of President (Transitional Arrangements) Bill, the Electoral Commission (Amendment) Bill, among other proposals, which seeks to establish a ‘selection panel’ to be responsible for inviting and assessing applications for commissioners of the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC), and making recommendations to the president.

The proposed composition of the ‘selection panel’ is the law commissioner, the chairperson of the Malawi Human Rights Commission, a judge of the High Court nominated by the Judicial Service Commission and two representatives of civil society organisations nominated by the Non-Governmental Organisation Board.

This bill, if passed, would effectively strip the powers of the president to appoint MEC commissioners except in consultation with political parties. The Referendum Bill seeks to provide the conduct and holding of a referendum in Malawi and other matters connected to it.

The justice minister had earlier stated at the commencement of the sitting that the debate on the proposed legislation would be introduced once it was published in the gazette, in accordance with the laws. He did not mention the exact date.

Analysts say some former presidents in Malawi have in the past been elected with fewer than half of the votes cast.

Political scientist Vincent Kondowe told the media recently that the new bill was in line with the principle of majority rule.

“In this case, we have a presidency which was obtained through a minority vote where 64 percent of the population did not vote for him. For example, Peter Mutharika in 2014 (elections). So, maybe to avoid such a scenario, it is very important that by 2019, we should have these electoral reforms in place.”

The bill also seeks to delay the swearing in of the winning presidential candidate and his vice president beyond 30 days. Under the current law, the winning presidential candidate can be sworn in within 30 days.

MEC said it will not be able to use the reforms during the 2019 elections if the bill is passed late.

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