The Malawi Electoral Commission is mandated, under Section 76 (2) of the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi, to:
[a] determine constituency boundaries impartially on the basis of ensuring that constituencies contain approximately equal numbers of voters eligible to register, subject only to considerations:
[i] population density
[ii] ease of communication and
[iii] geographical features and administrative boundaries.
[b] review existing constituency boundaries at intervals of not more than five years and alter them in accordance with the principles laid down in subsection 2(a) above.
Malawi has never conducted demarcation based on the said principles. The current constituencies have evolved on an incremental model.
No. of Constituencies
When the Commission conducted the exercise in 1998, it considered only those constituencies that were glarily large. The understanding was that a full demarcation exercise would be conducted after the 1999 elections. Today, 16 years later, the exercise is yet to be undertaken.
Several issues contributed to this delay:
- The appointment of new Commissioners is normally done close to the election, consequently making it difficult or impossible for the new Commission to undertake demarcation.
- Support to the Commission for the exercise has not been forthcoming.
In its current Strategic Plan, the Commission is determined to undertake a comprehensive demarcation exercise in the country. This will ensure that resultant constituencies respect the principles stipulated in the constitution ie. that of ensuring that constituencies are equipopulous.
It is difficult to come up with numbers of voters eligible to register in any constituency at the moment. The authority of population figures, the National Statistical Office, is unable to provide those projections.
The largest constituency at the moment in terms of number of Registered Voters is Lilongwe City Central with 126,115 while the smallest is Likoma Islands with 6,933. Other large constituencies include:
- Lilongwe City West with 101,597
- Mzuzu City with 89,371
- Salima Central with 75,485
while smaller constituencies include:
- Chitipa Wenya with 10,487
- Ntchisi North East with 12,566
- Rumphi East with 12,837
On average, with 193 constituencies, each constituency should have 38,770 voters.
There is no district in the country where constituencies are equipopulous.
There are a number of challenges that face demarcation in Malawi:
- Population Census
In Malawi, population and housing census takes place after every 10 years in the year ending with 8. This is just one year to the general election.
This pauses a challenge, to the demarcation body in that it is forced to conduct the exercise after the elections but using data that is not current.
In this year’s demarcation, the Commission has to use the 2008 population figures because the next census will be just a year to the election in 2018.
To compound the problem, National Statistics Office is not able to give projections to Enumeration Unit level, but only to district level.
- The constitutional provision that MEC should review constituency boundaries at a period of not more than 5 years is again problematic. The provision assumes that there are mechanisms of monitoring population movements of Malawians.
It is unrealistic that Malawi will achieve this feat. Ideally, boundaries should be reviewed after every national census ie. 10 years.
- The constitution provides that the Commission should demarcate constituencies based on population that is approximately equal numbers of voters eligible to register is again problematic. The provision forces MEC to make use of data that it has no control. Unlike other jurisdictions are Zambia where the Voters Register is used. In Malawi, the Commission depends on NSO figures. When NSO is unable to provide the required information, the Commission cannot move.
- Demarcation Law
Apart from the constitutional guidelines on demarcation that are broad, there is no piece of secondary legislation to support the process. Consequently, provisions like “subject only to considerations of:
[i] population density
[ii] ease of communication and
[iii] geographical features and administrative areas
Require further refining to ensure uniformity in application.
What weights should be assigned to those variables? Should this be a decision of the demarcation body?
- Administrative Areas
The issue of administrative areas is also of contention. Malawi has several areas where administrative areas are cloudy:
- Chonde – Luchenza
- Mzuzu – Nkhata-Bay
- Lilongwe City - Dowa
We need to give sanity to these areas as we go into demarcation.
THE DEMARCATION PROCESS SO FAR
In view of these challenges, the Commission sought the assistance of the Commonwealth Secretariat to provide us with technical assistance on how we could undertake the exercise.
We did indicate to them that according to our annual work plan, we would require the Technical Assistance from October 2015.
Unfortunately, the Commonwealth could not confirm to us if October was good for them.
They finally responded on 28th October that they are now beginning the process of recruiting the Consultant. The delay, according to the Commonwealth is because Malawi is in breach of the Abuja Guidelines regarding its contributions to the Commonwealth and hence, a waiver from the Secretary General had to be obtained in order to enable the Secretariat to respond.
The Consultant is now expected to be in Malawi in January to work with us on drawing the blueprint from the programme.
According to the Strategic Plan, the demarcation exercise will be completed in June 2017.
As we make these plans, we are well aware that the Electoral Reform Programme could come up with another recommendation which could be a departure from the current system of demarcating constituencies.
As has been alluded to by the Co-Chair, the Task Force on reforms, it is expected that the conference will deliberate this issue in December this year and a report will be presented to subsequent meeting of NECOF.
There are calls from various stakeholders who are agitating for the reduction of constituencies in the country. They argue that with a functional local government system, 193 constituencies are on a higher side. The Commission wishes to get views of NECOF on this matter.
The Commission will also embark on a ward delimitation exercise in readiness for the 2019 Local Government Elections. It is unlikely that the exercise will run concurrently with the constituency demarcation exercise. It would be recalled that the Electoral Commission Act was amended in 2010 to provide for two wards per constituency in district councils and specified numbers in city and municipal councils.
The electoral reform task force will submit to Ministry of Justice the request to amend the Electoral Commission Act so that the Commission is given powers to determine the number of wards in a council in consultation with relevant authorities.