Why Electoral Reforms Bills can as well be forgotten
A promise is meant to be fulfilled, especially when it is made on a public stage with a big spotlight.
The spotlight, in this case, can be so many things: A public lecture, for those in the academia; a staff meeting, for those in the private and public sector; a manifesto, for those in political parties, among others.
In whatever scenario, public officials must, especially, be careful before they look up at us from the balconies, or the podium, clear their throat and open their mouths to commit to one public cause or another. This also applies when they are about to commit themselves to a public cause by signing between the dotted lines.
Unfortunately for Malawi, many of its leaders are fond of opening their mouths even when they are not sure about the course of action they are about to take. In the case of politicians who stand for public office, they often endorse manifestoes even when they know they will make no attempt to fulfil their promises.
Take, for instance, the Democractic Progressive Party (DPP), which sailed directly into voters’ favour by promising the sun in a land full of fading stars. The DPP, which was selling Peter Mutharika— now President— during campaign promised, among other things, to put in place an Access to Information Act (ATI).
To the credit of the DPP, the ATI is a reality of modern-day Malawi.
Of course, there were struggles, with President Mutharika, at one point, vowing to shoot it down if certain provisions he did not name were not scraped from the then ATI Bill.
It was a sign of someone who, once he puts his hand to the wheel, suffers a change of heart.
Unfortunately for him, civil society organisations, among them the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa)-Malawi, wanted an ATI Act so badly that they worked hard, day and night, to ensure that they got what they wanted — namely ATI Act.
They could even hypothesise on what it could mean once they got what they wanted, as well as what it would mean if they did not get it.
But it seems that Misa-Malawi and other stakeholders did not have a Plan B, in case Mutharika and his DPP administration started digging in— as they are doing now, by failing to channel financial resources to the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC), which is the overseer of ATI implementation.
By design, MHRC is supposed to be armed with financial resources that would facilitate the hiring of staff, establishment of offices and mounting of a public awareness campaign that would help the ordinary Malawian sail in the same boat as the most complicated technocrat. A tall order.
That the DPP administration is cunning, when it comes to fulfilling its own promises, came to the fore again when Mutharika— on the occasion of The State Opening of The 4th Meeting in The 45th Session Of Parliament and The 2015/16 Budget Meeting in Lilongwe— avoided saying anything on his party’s promise to make Fisp available to every smallholder farmer.
The 2014/15 speech is relevant because it is closer to the May 2014 tripartite elections that ushered in the second DPP administration. Surely, the letters in the party’s 2014 Manifesto were fresh in Mutharika’s memory.
At the time Mutharika made the speech, Malawi had experienced extreme weather conditions that included heavy floods and prolonged dry spells at the critical stage of crop development. This, inevitably, culminated in catastrophe, in terms of food production, as crop estimates indicated that maize production had decreased from 3,978,123 metric tonnes in the 2013/14 agricultural season to 2,898,123 metric tonnes in the 2014/15 agricultural season, representing a 27.7 percent decline.
So, maybe Mutharika— and his DPP administration— can be forgiven for his oversight in forgetting to say something about making Fisp available to all and sundry because, if the truth be told, he had to grapple with prospects of hunger.
Indeed, so serious was the situation that the government was forced to set aside K8.0 billion in the 2015/16 budget for restocking the Strategic Grain Reserves in a desperate move to mitigate the looming food shortage.
So, instead of addressing the issue of ‘liberalising’ Fisp, Mutharika only said: “Mr. Speaker, Sir, in view of the significant contribution of the Farm Input Subsidy Programme to agricultural growth and national food self sufficiency, government continued to implement the programme during the 2014/15 fiscal year. Through the programme, a total of 1.5 million deserving farm families benefitted from 150,000 metric tonnes of fertilisers, 7,500 metric tonnes of maize and 3,000 metric tonnes of legume seed.”
But, in keeping with the DPP administration’s script, Mutharika and his party have kept mum on ‘liberalising’ Fisp. As the 2019 tripartite elections approach, it could be too late for the DPP administration to live up to its campaign promise.
Again, in keeping up with the DPP administration’s political script of giving while taking back, Mutharika has been playing hide and seek on the issue of Electoral Reforms Bills.
This year, the government, aware of growing public interest in the issue, sent Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Samuel Tembenu to a civil-society-initiated meeting where he promised to, come rain or sunshine, make sure that the Electoral Reforms Bills would see the light of day before the year 2017 sets on us.
The Public Affairs Committee (Pac), which was in the forefront, along with the Malawi Electoral Support Network (Mesn), have been advocating change— positive change— so that the 2019 elections may be different from those held in 1994, 1999, 2004, 2009 and 2014.
At the centre of the Bills is the idea to embrace the 50 percent + 1 system of electing presidents – as opposed to the First-Past-The-Post, which gave presidents the leeway to Sanjika Palace in Blantyre or the New State House in Lilongwe on the strength of one vote above other contestants.
This, according to Pac Chairperson Reverend Felix Chingota, will “give legitimacy to the presidency” and make it national.
Chingota is a suspicious man, knowing, as it were, that the Electoral Reforms Bills are nowhere near the order papers of the current Parliament meeting.
No wonder, Mesn has weighed in on the issue, expressing surprise that the Bills have not been prioritised.
“We are surprised that the Electoral Reforms Bills are not on the Order Paper,” said Mesn Chairperson Steven Duwa yesterday.
The Electoral Reforms Bills, through their 32 recommendations, may change the playground of elections for good.
Malawi Congress Party (MCP) president and Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, Lazarus Chakwera, has already weighed in on the issue, threatening, recently, to boycott Parliamentary proceedings.
Of course, the MCP Members of Parliament may follow their leader out of Parliament in their quest to force change. The question is: Will it work?
The challenge the MCP and other opposition parties, CSOs and all those advocating tabling of the Electoral Reforms Bills is that they are dealing with a political party that does not change.
The other reason is that only a president who is out of his head can agree to such reforms, for, the sooner he does that, he easier it becomes to surrender power, at the ballot, while it is still sweet.
The solution, for the ruling party, is to dig in; which it is doing, to the chagrin of advocates of the Bills. The DPP’s prayer is that it can dig in as far as May 2019.
Maybe poet Bouterweck might have foreseen this when he said:
Bend the tender stem of a reed;
Bend it too much and it breaks.
He who attempts too much attempts nothing.
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