President Peter Mutharika has signed into law the Referendum Bill which was passed by lawmakers last year.
However, vital sections that gave power to the masses to petition a sitting head of State to call for a referendum as proposed by the Special Law Commission are missing.
Spokesperson for Parliament, Leonard Mengezi, confirmed that Mutharika assented to two bills: Referendum Bill and the Political Parties Bill. The bills, he said, were gazetted on February 2.
The Referendum Bill, which initially proposed 500,000 signatures to petition a president to call for a referendum, was the first electoral amendment bill that Parliament passed as the government negotiated to stop planned mass protests against the government’s reluctance to table the Electoral Reforms [Amendment] Bills.
However, the bill did not receive much scrutiny from Members of Parliament (MPs) as expected because the focus was on other electoral amendment bills and government and its supporters in Parliament were in a hurry to stop the protests.
Malawi Law Society President, Mwiza Nkhata, described alterations to the Referendum Act as unfortunate.
“The problem with the assented Act is that the powers to call for a referendum rest solely in the president. So, if the president is reluctant to call for the referendum due to personal reasons, Malawians will have no powers to move him,” he said.
Initially, the bill proposed by the Special Law Commission read: “Upon submission of a petition to the President signed by not less than five hundred thousand (500,000) registered voters, proclaim, by order published in the Gazette, that a referendum shall be held.”
The Act is also without Section 4 of the proposed bill which expressly outlined scenarios which call for the referenda including amendment of sections listed in the Schedule to the Constitution, national legislation, national policy and citizens’ welfare.
But the good news is that Mutharika has also assented to the Political Parties Bill which, unlike the Referendum Bill, received intense scrutiny in Parliament last year before it was passed by MPs.
This means that a candidate or political party contesting in an election shall not issue handouts during campaigns and failure to adhere to that is an offence which attracts a fine of K10 million or five years imprisonment.
The new law also gives powers to the Registrar of Political Parties to deregister political parties that do not win in elections or hold conventions and also impose fines on political parties that do not declare donations.
The Political Parties Act also calls for political parties to inform the registrar whenever there is a change involving amendment to a political party constitution or manifesto.
MPs also failed to compare and contrast the proposed bill against what was brought to Parliament by the government.
“The MPs have all the mandate to scrutinise the bills before they are passed but, in this case, there is doubt they did a job of scrutinising the bill,” he said
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