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The 50% + 1 Malawi Electoral Reform Bill: Dry bones in a parable

The political temperature boiling. There are no by-standers as everyone has turned political now. No wonder in the melee, duty bearers have assumed the role of rights holders, prompting them to shoot from the hip.

For years now, Malawians have been discussing the possibility of changing the country’s electoral management laws to sanitise the process of elections. All stakeholders, including the government, the opposition, the faith community and other interest groups were part of the consultations. The Law Commission came up with a report and 32 recommendations to the government which later culminated into six bills commonly called the Electoral Reforms Bills.

Since the recommendations were received, government has been assuring Malawians that the bills would be tabled in Parliament for enactment. Surprisingly, the government is reneging, claiming that there have not been adequate consultations. The government also argues that the 50 percent plus one system would be costly to the government as it may call for re-runs in cases of a tie. Ironically, no-one has told the rest of the citizens what the bills contain.

One would be tempted to probe why, all of a sudden, government has developed cold feet on the bills. Let us unpack the bundle that is called the Electoral Reforms Bills. There is the Constitution (Amendment) Bill; The Electoral Commission (Amendment) Bill; Presidential Elections and the Local Government Elections (Amendment) Bills; Assumption of the Office of the President (Transitional Arrangement) Bill and the Referendum Bill.

Glossing over the proposed bills, one sees that there is a proposal to have a maximum age of a presidential candidate, a proposal not to rush to swear-in a presidential winner until all issues have been sorted, a proposal to have commissioners of the Electoral Commission nominated by the public in a transparent way as opposed to having them appointed by the president alone. The other reform is to give Malawians powers to push for a referendum on national issues or when public service delivery system is poor and that for any presidential candidate to be declared a winner, they must amass a minimum of 51 percent of the votes cast.

A critical look at these proposed changes show that they aim to take government to the people. And this is in line with the Constitutional provisions that those who govern do so on trust and their continued stay in power is dependent on the sustenance of such trust.

There is a feeling among some sectors of society that if a president is preferred by more than half of the voters, they are likely to be sensitive and responsive to the aspirations of the wider population. This is based on the belief that if a president knows that they can win by being voted for by their tribe, region or religion, they are more than likely to practise pork-barrel politics.

A minority president is likely to entrench nepotism so as to empower their people in readiness for a next election. A minority president may have propensity to systematically trample upon efforts of other tribes and regions in order to promote hegemony by a certain tribe or region. In simple terms, it is believed that a minority president can be narrow-minded and stiff-necked as long as he fortifies his political enclave.

However, there are exceptions to this belief. Former president the late Bingu wa Mutharika won his first term in 2004 with a minority vote, but he performed wonders to the extent that Malawians handed him a staggering 66 percent of the total votes in 2009. But Bingu ended up abusing the trust of the people and trampled on civil liberties. He told the citizens to apply and pay a fee for them to hold demonstrations and unleashed his Young Cadets and the police to kill peaceful demonstrators. Bingu embarked on a series of public lectures that aimed at indoctrinating citizens. Even foreign policy suffered at his hands where Malawi would take unilateral decisions on trans-national issues such as the Shire- Zambezi Waterway Project.

As is always the case with debates, both sides make sense in their respective arguments. But in a democracy, wishes of the majority must prevail. Unfortunately, that is always a case even if it means the majority are pushing towards a ravine. It happened in the UK, recently, when the majority opted out of the European Union. It also happened in the US where the majority voted for a president who runs the great nation on twitter.

Government cannot claim that Malawians have not been appraised on the bills because our country follows a representative system at all levels. The stakeholders to the reforms were representative of us all. The government too has the Ministry of Civic Education and the Ministry of Information to update Malawians on such issues.

Unless those in leadership know that they cannot sail through in transparent elections, then we can safely agree that an old woman becomes uneasy when dry bones are mentioned in a parable.

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