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Electoral reforms test signals positive results

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Based on both local and international election observer teams of the 2014 tripartite elections and previous elections, there have been challenges of late delivery of materials or insufficient materials that did not match with the number of registered voters at polling stations.

At the core of problems associated with delivery of election day materials is the fact that distribution of materials was centralised at Malawi Electoral Commission’s (Mec) head office in Blantyre.

This presented several logistic challenges as reported by the then Mec chairs.

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It has been a recurring challenge over each and every election event with no solution in sight.

Based on these observations, the European Union Electoral Observer Mission, a key donor to Malawi’s elections threatened not to fund the next tripartite elections if no reforms are to be made aimed at improving elections in the country.

On this note, the Malawi Electoral Support Network (Mesn) started advocating non-legislative reforms for consideration and implementation by Mec in order to improve the administration, management and delivery of future elections.

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On October 5 and 6, 2016, Mesn with Mec and political parties under the banner of Centre for Multiparty Democracy (CMD) met to discuss and agree on the non-legislative electoral reforms.

At the end of the meeting, an action plan was drawn, with Mec committing itself to implementing the proposed recommendations.

The commission also committed to piloting some of the agreed reforms during the November 1, 2016 by-elections while others were deemed more appropriate for implementation during the 2019 polls.

Inspired by Section 84 of the Local Government Elections Act of 1996 which states that “For the purpose of this Act, observation means the verification of the various stages of the election by international organisations, international and local non-government organisations, foreign governments and foreign and local personalities duly recognised for the purpose in accordance with this part…” and the mandate as provided in Section 89 (c) of the same Act and for the purpose of the agreed actions on the implementation of the non-legislative electoral reforms, Mesn participated in the by-elections to assess the implementation of the agreed recommendations that Mec promised to implement.

This assessment, according to Mesn Chairperson Steven Duwa, was conducted in five districts where by-elections were held, namely Mchinji West Constituency for parliamentary by-election; Lilongwe City South-east Constituency, in Kaliyeka Ward; Dedza South Constituency, in Bembeke Ward; Kasungu North Constituency, in Bunda Ward and in Zomba Central City Constituency for Sadzi Ward for local council by-elections respectively.

The by-elections, Duwa said provided an appropriate opportunity for Mesn to test Mec how far it has gone towards implementation of the agreed non-legislative electoral reforms.

Likewise, Mec Chair, Justice Jane Ansah, said the by-elections provided the electoral body an opportunity to test some of the agreed non-legislative electoral reforms as a basis for the 2019 elections.

According to the October 2016 communiqué, the recommendations include two thematic areas that are delivery of materials and transmission of results.

Under delivery of materials, Mec was tasked to ensure that at the opening of each polling station, voting materials must be sufficient; it should develop criteria for differentiating sensitive and non-sensitive materials for elections and sensitise stakeholders to these criteria prior to the by-elections.

In addition to copies of the voters register and posting them for inspection at appropriate public place made known to the public as required under Section 31 of Presidential and Parliamentary Elections Act, Mec should provide the voters list in an electoral format to political parties and election observers for independent verification.

While on transmission of results, presiding officers were required to post and record election results per polling station. The results sheet from polling stations was required to include results in both figures and words and constituency tally centres was required to be moved from the office of the district commissioners and be located in the constituencies.

As per an agreement between all these three parties, all the non-legislative electoral reforms were implemented, a development that saw all the polling stations opening in time similarly to transmission of results.

Despite Mec accrediting Mesn monitors, they were challenges for them assessing polling stations and low voter turnout which led to voter apathy were some of the key challenges encountered during the by-elections, noted Duwa.

With new commissioners, a chairperson and a secretariat headed by an acting deputy chief elections officer, Thandi Nkovole, Duwa observed that the commission has started on very good note.

“This is very important when we consider that after the 2014 tripartite elections, many stakeholders including the citizenry had lots of misgivings about the capacity, integrity and credibility of the Electoral Commission,” Duwa said.

Rebranding Mec, therefore, he said seems to be the priority of the current commissioners and “I would urge all electoral stakeholders, the media and the general public to support the commission in this regard.”

Duwa urged government as main financier of Mec programmes and activities to do so in a timely manner and as per electoral calendar.

Further to that, he urged the development partners to support Mec programmes and activities and allow the commission to own and drive their programmes.

On the electoral reforms laws, Duwa said Mesn has no authority in terms of dictating the pace and what finally should be considered.

While speaking during the review of the by-elections in Blantyre recently, Justice Ansah took her time praising Mesn.

“I’m happy to share with you that some of the reforms that were feasible were implemented and contributed to having a successful by-election on November 1, 2016,” she said.

She said part of the non-legislative reforms the parties agreed to implement during the by-elections was to improve delivery of election materials; improve management and transmission of election results and facilitating voter registration and voter verification exercise among others.

Subsequent to that, presiding officers were able to record and display election results per polling stream in addition to displaying aggregated results from all the streams at a polling station and the results sheet indicated results both in figures and words.

On that note, Ansah said the collective determination to ensure that credible, effective, free and fair elections are delivered to Malawians “will help us in entrenching our country’s democracy.”

“You, our stakeholders are dedicated, committed and selfless in managing the electoral process and I would like to encourage you to keep up this exceptional spirit.”

She said there are more to be done, learned, refined and implemented and believes that working together and keeping each other accountable will go a long way in making sure that “we are able to implement all feasible non-legislative recommendations.”

CMD Representative Ulemu Chilapondwa commended Mec for implementing the non-legislative reforms.

As CMD, Chilapondwa said: “We want to see things moving forward. We want to experience credible elections that would be accepted by everybody. We promise to be a useful tool for transformation.”

As part of the recommendations from the review meeting, political parties were urged to make sure that all their accredited party agents should be available during counting and that they testify the results by endorsing their signature.

In addition to that elected individuals were urged to strive to deliver on their election promises as a way to motivate voters, hence mitigating voter apathy.

It remains to be seen if the 2019 elections will be a recurring of previous electoral challenges or it will bring any significant change considering that completion of drafting legislative reforms deadline continues changing from one year to the other.

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