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Elections, reforms and transition law

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail, so goes the saying. Certainly, nobody wants to fail in life.

However, failure becomes inevitable in situations where one does not prepare well for success.

In farming for example, there are crops that only survive in heavy moisture and such crops ought to be planted in good time as well in order for them to enjoy the full season of the rains. If one is looking for a good harvest, he must do the right thing then, and anything to the contrary will not bring desirable results.

Since the advent of new democratic dispensation in 1994, Malawi has had some challenges bedevilling its democratisation process. Much as we are said to have attained multiparty democracy where regimes are now given the mandate to government through elections, there are still areas of the process that require to be reviewed to make sure that our democracy is meaningful to our people.

After every election, those declared losers have always expressed dissatisfaction on the outcome of the results. Elections must be properly managed by independent bodies in order to produce credible results.

Credibility, integrity and transparency in the manner elections are run is a must and electoral management bodies must thrive to maintain these values at all times. Elections are supposed to be a process; unfortunately, our country has always treated elections as an event that comes and goes.

The manner in which funds meant for electoral activities are allocated in the national budget and disbursed can attest to this observation. In addition to this, our budget for the elections is still largely dependent on the good will of our development partners.

No wonder even the results are certified on the development partners’ ‘standards’. This situation also begs the question as to who owns the elections. To some extent, it also raises issues of sovereignty.

An honest response to these fundamental questions may sound controversial but that is the painful truth we must accept about our situation and democracy to be precise. Unfortunately, there is no sign of departure from this way of doing business, at least in the foreseeable future.

There is need for a paradigm shift and we must lead the process ourselves because these are our elections. The national budget does not prioritise the provision of funds meant for electoral reforms and other activities to make the electoral cycle fully functional.

Not even those that felt short-changed during the last elections are able to give strong views on the need for the country to engage in a meaningful review of the electoral laws. Some ranting in the National Assembly falls short of strategic proposals and lobbying for enough resources towards the process but instead reduces the whole debate to mere acts of narrow partisan politics crowded in frustration.

Currently, there is an electoral reforms task force which is trying to work on reforms to our electoral laws. The initiative is commendable as it is meant to deal with the grey areas in the electoral laws.

The process, however, should not just be in the hands of a few heads of civil society organisations some of which have no strong network on the ground. Those working on the reforms must avoid making this very important process a boardroom affair for a certain class of people.

Those driving the initiative must at all cost guard against taking on board proposals that are driven by pure frustration, anger or partisan politics. The reform process should be driven by sobriety, objectivity, pragmatism and the need to make things better for the country.

Elections involve voters the majority of which are found in the rural areas. We must, therefore, make them part and parcel of the process through constant engagement. These reforms are supposedly done to serve the interest of the voters and the voter must be visible and heard in the process.

Now that we have local government (councils) in place, this should be an easy thing to do. As a country, we must at all cost avoid copy-and-paste electoral systems and laws in our statutes.

All proposals must be subjected to rigorous debate and scrutiny so that in the end, we can claim ownership of the final product.

Embracing the new technology

The new trend now in Africa is that electoral management bodies are switching to new technology for voter registration and voting itself. Part of the success story of the recent elections in Nigeria where the ruling party lost to the opposition is owed to new technology.

During the preparation process for the 2014 elections, the Electoral Commission was busy with the issue of introducing a new technology to our electoral process. The idea was put on hold though because some stakeholders felt it was rather too late to introduce a new system.

The Electoral Commission should now move in quickly to study and learn how their colleagues were able to successfully use what is commonly known as the ‘card reader system’. If we wait for the 2018-19 national budget to start lobbying for the funding of an equipment and system that is more likely to cost the country a fortune, then we should know we are preparing to fail. Electoral activities must be included in every budget to reflect an electoral cycle as opposed to stuffing all the needs in a single national budget.

In case of new technology, the cost is not only on the purchase but training as well. The training has to be done thoroughly and not hurriedly if we are serious about quality and credible results.

This again requires transparent recruitment of human resource and training itself. The timing in resource allocation to this process, therefore, is of essence.

Transition law

One of the moments that create tension not only in Malawi but other African countries is the transition from one regime to another in case of the incumbent losing an election.

Here in Malawi, for example, former president Joyce Banda did not attend the inaugural ceremony at the Kamuzu Stadium last year for reasons that bordered on poor management of our transition.

Our laws lack details in terms of how the transition should be conducted and the process is unfortunately done at the whim of the winner.

Malawi needs to come up with a legal framework that should properly guide our transition so that our leaders, regardless of the results of the elections, are accorded a dignified exit from the State House.

How I wish an outgoing president was compelled by law to present handover notes to the incoming leader personally. An omission of this law in our statutes should be corrected.

To leave this very important aspect of the process in the hands of an individual or a group of overzealous party functionaries is recipe for disorder and a threat to our peace and democracy. As a country, we must not be ashamed to borrow a leaf from other countries on how they manage their affairs so long as the objectives are for the common good of our nation.

Ideally, an election is not a personal fight among politicians or political parties. It is supposed to be a contest of ideas on how to govern better.

It is within the spirit and meaning of elections that as a country we must be progressive in ensuring that our elections give democracy a proper meaning too.

In any undertaking challenges are inevitable but we must be proactive in finding solutions to the challenges through robust debate and consultations with the relevant stakeholders in a timely manner. Well managed elections are central to peace and democratisation.

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