Malawi's electoral commission loses its lustre

In 1994, the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) was feted for its fair and efficient organisation of a poll that ousted autocratic ruler Hastings Kamuzu Banda. A decade on, however, the lustre has been rubbed off of the organisation.

It now finds itself at the centre of a row about alleged irregularities in the run-up to general elections on May 18. The MEC says it has limited powers to address these problems -‒ but this claim has been disputed by various legal experts.

Matters came to a head earlier this month in the commercial centre of Blantyre, when political parties, civil society groups and donors met commission representatives to discuss concerns about the upcoming poll.

They accuse the MEC of failing to act against the government-controlled Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) and Television Malawi (TVM), which are said to favour the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) in their campaign coverage.
MEC officials are also accused of using state resources for their own ends.

These charges were given some substance earlier this month when chief elections officer George Chimwaza was suspended from his post and replaced with clerk of Parliament Roosevelt Gondwe.

This followed a complaint by the opposition Mgwirizano Coalition that Chimwaza had been using MEC vehicles to help his wife, Stella, campaign for a parliamentary seat as an independent candidate in the southern district of Mulanje. (Chimwaza is refusing to answer questions from reporters on the matter.)

But apart from disciplining Chimwaza, the MEC has done little to address the alleged irregularities -‒ insisting that those with qualms about its conduct seek redress from the courts, ombudsman or Malawi’s Human Rights Commission. It’s a recommendation that certain legal minds are quick to challenge.

“They have enough legal tools to act, but for their own reasons they’re choosing not to act,” says Edge Kanyongolo, a constitutional lawyer and lecturer at the University of Malawi, citing section 113 of the Parliamentary and Presidential Elections Act.

Kanyongolo said that this clause gives the MEC extensive powers to examine irregularities and, where necessary, take action. This might even include asking the courts to intervene in problematic situations.

Supreme Court Judge Anastazia Msosa, who served as chairperson of the MEC in the 1994 general election, says while the commission’s powers may not be wholly adequate, the current disputes could have been side-stepped if existing laws were properly applied.

“All I can say is if laws are followed, these problems could be avoided,” she said.

On April 20, the opposition National Democratic Alliance heeded the commission’s advice about court action, filing suit against the MBC and TVM. This prompted the Public Affairs Committee, an umbrella body for faith groupings, to withdraw its own case against the MBC in support of the alliance.

Malawi’s Parliamentary and Presidential Elections Act, Electoral Commission Act and Constitution all clearly state that government-controlled media should provide equal and fair coverage to parties during the two months of official campaigning that precede a general election.

However, the MBC has pleaded logistical constraints, saying it does not have the resources to provide comprehensive campaign coverage.

Speaking at the meeting of political parties and civil society earlier this month, Bazuka Mhango, director of legal affairs for Mgwirizano, said the seven party grouping feared the May poll would not be free and fair.

“Given these responses, we can… say we’re not going to have free and fair elections,” he observed.

The opposition is also querying the figure of six-million registered voters released by the MEC, arguing the apathetic response to voter registration makes it unlikely that this number of people would be on the books. In addition, they say census records from the National Statistical Office show Malawi could not have six-million people of voting age at this time.

For its part, the ruling UDF has been accused of buying of voter registration certificates from opposition supporters, who are supposedly paid with blankets, Malawi’s staple food -‒ maize -‒ and other goods. As these certificates are required for voting, it is feared that the opposition could lose ballots come May 18.

UDF representatives Dumbo Lemani and Henry Damalekani-Phoya stormed out of the meeting held by parties and civil society this month, sticking accusing fingers at donors who funded and attended the gathering. They describing the meeting as a waste of money for taxpayers in donor countries.

The MEC, which apparently faces a nine million dollar shortfall in its election budget, has appealed to donors to provide added funds for the May poll. Gondwe says the deficit was caused by increased prices for the fuel used in commission vehicles, and by the costs of extending voter registration for an added week.

But, Britain and Norway -‒ which have already provided money for the election -‒ are advising the MEC to tighten its belt instead.

“The British government has already contributed enough. We do not believe an increase in the elections budget is justifiable,” said Christopher Wraight, Press and Political Secretary at the British High Commission in Malawi’s capital ‒ Lilongwe. He noted that Britain had already donated 500 000 pounds ($886 200) for the poll.

Said Kristin Sverdrup, deputy head of the Norwegian Embassy, “We’re not mandated to support Malawi with elections -‒ they should fund their own elections. We gave them five million dollars last June and there’s no possibility of giving them more.”

Gondwe believes the commission also needs to provide money to NGOs to help them conduct civic education, which some observers believe has not been adequate.

“It’s true, we’ve not done enough civic education due to funding constraints, and as civil society we’re not happy not to have done enough to help the electorate,” said Steve Mkali, Executive Director of the Malawi Foundation for General Civic Education.

Opposition groups disputed the outcome of the most recent general election held in 1999, claiming that President Bakili Muluzi -‒ who won by a narrow margin -‒ had rigged the vote. However, they lost a court appeal about this allegation. - IPS

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