Catholics to protest
Millions of Catholics have been asked to do their civic duty and join Public Affairs Committee (Pac)’s peaceful march to force President Peter Mutharika’s administration to table the Electoral Reforms Bills in the current meeting of Parliament.
The Episcopal Conference of Malawi (ECM) on Friday released a letter endorsing Pac’s call for peaceful demonstrations countrywide on December 13 2017. The bishops also said the letter has to be read in all Catholic churches on December 3 and 10.
In Lilongwe, Vice-President Saulos Chilima, an ardent Catholic, stood up as usual and read the church announcements which included the message from the bishops, a development a social commentator described as a sign that Chilima is at odds with his party.
“This announcement is from the Episcopal Conference of Malawi, who are expressing their dissatisfaction with the way the government has handled electoral and Local Government reforms and [is] not [coming] personally from me,” Chilima said.
Chilima is a member of the liturgy committee of the church.
“The mother body of all Catholics is calling out all Catholics to participate in the peaceful demonstration. It is not saying we should demonstrate on WhatsApp or Facebook,” Chilima told the St Pious congregation.
The announcement was made across all the dioceses in the country during mass, good news for Pac— which wants many people to turn up— and bad news for Mutharika who is facing a crisis of confidence worsened by power outages that have irked many.
The Catholic Church is the single largest church in Malawi.
As a last straw, Pac last week announced December 13 2017 as a D-Day of country-wide peaceful protests against Mutharika’s reluctance to table bills which seek to change the electoral system from the current First-Past-the- Post to 50 Percent +1, among other changes.
Catholic bishops in Malawi have long been catalysts for change and played a leading role in ending the one-party rule of the Malawi Congress Party. In the late 2000s, their public pronouncements helped stop president Bakili Muluzi’s third term bid.
But a social and political commentator, Kondwani Gondwe, yesterday wondered whether the bishops still hold sway on public opinion “until we see how many turn up, I don’t think this [the announcement] means much” at the moment.
“Having said that, I think bishops endorsing the protests means that they believe that this administration is far from being democratic and they are saying if we want to truly secure a future for our children then such reforms can help remove governments that fail to perform,” Gondwe said.
Another social commentator, Rafiq Hajat, lauded the bishops for coming out to support the December 13 demonstrations.
He said Catholic bishops have, at one point or another, encouraged positive change in Malawi.
“They [bishops] have been consistent and have always come at a critical time and I whole-heartedly applaud them,” Hajat said.
This, he said, means that they have heeded the call of the people and are aware that Malawians have been ruled by minority governments for a long time because of the current electoral system of First-Past-the-Post.
It is reported that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) does not like the proposed electoral changes because the bills also propose a 30-day wait before a winning presidential candidate is sworn in to allow for time to resolve any electoral disputes.
Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, Samuel Tembenu, in May promised Parliament that the bills would be tabled in November – the current meeting. But it is three weeks since Parliament was officially opened by Mutharika and the bills are yet to be tabled
Yesterday, Tembenu was adamant. He said the government was not going to be forced to table bills that have not been thoroughly scrutinised.
“People have to be patient as these bills will be changed. No one is sitting on them. People need to understand that it took the Law Commission nine months to formulate the bills and it cannot take them a single sitting to change all these things,” Tembenu said.
Apart from the proposed change from the current system of electing a president, the six Electoral Reforms Bills are also suggesting changes in procedures for appointing the Malawi Electoral Commission chairperson and want 28 seats reserved for women in Parliament
Meanwhile, the ruling DPP has been on a mission of vote buying, courting, among others, legislators from the People’s Party and Malawi Congress Party to amass 128 votes and garner a two-thirds majority to stifle the bills when they are tabled in Parliament.
The ruling party is also reported to have assembled a team of traditional leaders that are lobbying against the bills.
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