Opposition members of Parliament (MPs) have challenged President Peter Mutharika to appear before the august House before the passing of the 2015/16 National Budget where he should answer different questions.
This follows last week’s remarks by MP for Lilongwe South West, Peter Chakhwantha, who argued that if the 2015/16 expenditure plan is passed without Mutharika appearing before the House, then the President will have breached the Constitution.
Chakhwantha, who is also chairperson of the Legal Affairs Committee of Parliament, said Section 89, Sub-section 3 of the Constitution demands that the President should appear before Parliament to undertake two remaining functions after the State of the Nation Address.
“According to this provision, it is a must that the President should come to Parliament to undertake three functions. One of them, which is the delivery of the State of the Nation Address, has already been undertaken.
“Then he is supposed to come to Parliament again to report on policies of the previous year. He is also supposed to respond to questions from members. The latter two obligations have to be undertaken before the budget is passed,” he said.
Chakhwantha argued that the provision that the President shall go to Parliament to undertake the three assignments should not be confused with Section 89, Sub-section 4 which says “the President shall be called” to Parliament, saying the former is not optional.
Meanwhile, a Malawian professor of law based at the University of Cape Town, Danwood Chirwa, has backed Chakhwantha’s argument on the need for Mutharika to appear before the National Assembly.
“The President does not have to be called by Parliament for him or her to answer questions posed by MPs. He or she is constitutionally obliged to appear before Parliament every year, immediately before the consideration of the budget, to do [the said] three related things,” said Chirwa.
He added: “Section 89(3) is a vital mechanism by which the President can be held directly answerable to Parliament, which authorises his or her government’s policies, and indirectly to the electorate, who expect MPs to exercise oversight over the Executive between elections.”
Chirwa also pointed out that, by contrast, Section 89(4) refers to other occasions on which the President may be called to Parliament to answer questions.
This, he said, is something that the lawmakers themselves were supposed to undertake.
“These occasions and the applicable procedures for calling the President and conducting the question and answer session may be prescribed by the Standing Orders. The rationale of Section 89(4) is immediately apparent,” said Chirwa.
The law professor argued that effectively, Section 89(4) is a residual layer of accountability for the presidency that Parliament has.
According to Chirwa, a combination of both Section 89(3) and (4) makes our constitutional scheme a robust blueprint for presidential accountability.
He said the suggestion that Section 89(3) has thus far been ignored by both Parliament and previous Presidents which represents an inexcusable abdication of responsibility on the part of both.
In another interview on Wednesday, Chakhwantha further argued that the fact that the President appears before Parliament to deliver the State of the Nation Address of his own volition implies that he knows it is a constitutional requirement just as the other two are.
“We are expecting the President to come before Parliament before the budget is passed since he swore to uphold the laws of the country and since he has been touting himself as a leader who believes in the rule of law. Him being a law professor, we expect that he will follow what the law says,” said Chakhwantha.
According to the Legal Affairs Committee chair, under Mutharika’s government’s Monetary Policy and Financial Sector Development, the lawmakers will pose to the President questions on the controversial sale of Malawi Savings Bank (MSB).
Meanwhile, People’s Party (PP) leader in the House, Uladi Mussa, said in an interview on Thursday that now that the issue of a President appearing before Parliament to answer questions from MPs has come to the fore, his party expects Mutharika to respect the provision.
“I know that since 1994, no President has fulfilled this constitutional obligation. Now that it has been exposed, if the President does not appear before Parliament before the budget is passed, that is a violation of our Constitution,” said Mussa.
He could, however, not disclose the issues his party would want the President to tackle.
On his part, Malawi Congress Party (MCP) Chief Whip, Lobin Lowe, said the lawmakers would study relevant practices within the region to understand how such provisions are implemented.
“On the issue of questions, Parliamentary Standing Orders say they are supposed to be sent to the President first before he can inform the House when he will appear before it,” said Lowe.
He added that the Business and the Legal Affairs committees will meet and review the application of the two constitutional provisions.
But the Attorney General Kalekeni Kaphale expressed surprise, saying Parliament was supposed to draft that agenda if it was necessary.
“The order paper contains questions that are supposed to be asked in the chamber. The process is the same; you cannot invite the President and ambush him with questions because some of the questions may require him to cite data. Ask honourable Chankhwatha if that has been done,” he said.— Additional reporting by Adam Phiri
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