Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Opening Speech For BRIDGE Training On Delimitation and Elections

I am pleased to perform the official opening of this Building Resources In Democracy, Governance and Elections (BRIDGE) training course on Boundary Delimitation to being held here at Malawi Sun Hotel, Blantyre. At the outset, I would like to warmly welcome the presence of my fellow Commissioners, MEC secretariat, senior leaders of various political parties, members of the press, ladies and gentlemen here present today.

This training is an appropriate undertaking as we prepare for the elections in 2019 with the electoral cycle approach in mind. Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, this training could not have come at a better time than this when we are preparing to have a thorough demarcation exercise where we are going to redefine wards and boundaries of all constituencies in the country.

The course will expose us to various practices around the globe. The law gives powers to the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) to determine the number of constituencies for purposes of elections and to undertake or supervise the demarcation of wards. In the case of constituencies, the overriding criterion is that of ensuring equitable representation as MEC is encouraged to ensure that “constituencies contain approximately equal number of voters eligible to register”.

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, other considerations include population density, ease of communication and geographical features and existing administrative areas. For the wards, factors to be considered include population density, geographical features, easy communication and the wishes of the people and the MEC is to ensure that ward boundaries do not cross local authority jurisdictions.

The Constitution states that with regard to constituencies, the review should take place at intervals of not more than five years. Once MEC has reviewed and determined the constituency boundaries, its recommendations are forwarded to Parliament for confirmation. Where Parliament may reject MEC’s recommendations, it (Parliament) cannot alter both the number and boundaries of the constituencies.

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, since independence, the constituency boundaries have been altered seven times. The last time boundary delimitation was undertaken was 1998, about 17 years ago. As you would note, this has gone beyond the five-year interval as required by the Constitution. In 2014, the Commission only finalized delimitation of ward boundaries, the process of which had started in 2010. It is apparent, therefore, that the current sizes and number of constituencies and wards do not therefore reflect the basic democratic principles as laid down in the Constitution. In the aftermath of the 2014 Tripartite Elections, the Commission held postmortem meetings in all the 35 councils to hear views of the stakeholders on issues we have to focus on to have a better election in 2019. The need to demarcate and redefine boundaries of constituencies and wards was presented often with vigor, enthusiasm and heartiness. Many participants in these meetings raised issues that constituencies and wards were too big to be serviced by one Member of Parliament or one Councillor as such some areas have been affected in terms of development.

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, we foresee from the Commission perspective that it will be a mammoth task but we cannot ignore it. We are determined to undertake the process. We are glad that government has allocated K300 million in the current budget for this exercise. We are also courting partners to help the Commission on technical expertise so that we can come with a credible process that will pass all political and legal requirements. We are aware of the political implications of demarcation exercise. Accusations of gerrymandering will always arise more especially when the exercise is conducted closer to elections period where the geopolitical maps become clearer. However, lucky us, we are having this exercise now when no candidate is known for 2019 elections.

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, we do realise that political parties are key stakeholders in the process of demarcation. They produce the candidates who compete in the elections. That is why we have decided to build your capacity and understanding of the demarcation process through this training. I know you read the electoral laws and you are aware of the legal provisions guiding demarcation processes, but this training will give more than that. We have experienced and knowledgeable facilitators who will take use through the BRIDGE module which is full of rich information and international examples.

We are bound to meet cases or situations in the course of demarcation which the knowledge and skills from this training will be applied. We are definitely going to share some of the issues from the past exercise, we might not have been there but certainly someone was or it has been documented, this is our chance to benefit. Therefore, I urge you to pay attention to whatever will be shared. It is very vital, we will need it on the way to 2019.

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, the Commission has of late been getting enquiries from all the corners of the countries especially from sitting elected leaders on the plans MEC has for their areas, more especially if MEC will split their constituencies or not. I should take the opportunity to clarify some issues regarding the process of demarcation. It will be a very consultative process whereby all stakeholders will be involved.

Normally activities are coordinated at council level and relevant stakeholders like council officials, political parties, traditional leaders and civil society organizations including the public directly are engaged. We are aware and we cannot pretend not to know that there is a general feeling among members of the public that some of the constituencies should be split because they are too big with difficult-to-reach patches to be serviced by one MP. This will help the MP to pay proper attention to the needs of the constituents.

Following this line of argument, there should be an increase of the total number of MPs from the current 193. However, there is also another school of thought that says that with the coming in of the councilors, the number of MPs we have now is more than enough and even some constituencies should be merged. If MPs concentrate on their legislative roles then they cannot complain that the constituency is too big. We will have to tread carefully by having a clear formula and guidelines that will help us to have a successful exercise with a sustainable output and also considering the national resource envelop.

I take the opportunity to thank the European Union who have supported the training under the Democratic Governance Programme (DGP). The EU DGP is the biggest supporter to MEC outside the basket fund. We cherish this relation and we pray that it takes us through to 2019. I should also thank my fellow Commissioners, leaders of various political parties and staff from secretariat for availing themselves for this training. My word to you is that BRIDGE requires full participation for you to appreciate the benefits and get the internationally recognized certificate of attendance. May your presence last up to coming Friday.

With these remarks, I declare this BRIDGE training on Boundary Delimitation opened. Please have a successful time.

May God bless you, bless our nation.

Thank you very much

Delivered this day of 5 th October 2015 by Justice Maxon Mbendera SC Chairman, Malawi Electoral Commission

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