Saturday, April 28, 2018

Same, old electoral hurdles

Malawi— meaning, the state— is no different from a human being; they both breathe.
While a human being breathes every now and then— taking in the so-called breath of life called oxygen while expelling puffs of carbon dioxide— Malawi the nation state has fallen, since the multiparty elections of 1994, into the habit of taking political breaths every five years.
This is because— five presidential elections later, five national parliamentary elections later, two local government elections later— it is written that Malawi has to hold elections every five years, as one way of giving the electorate the opportunity to express themselves so that, in so doing, political leaders can be given a fresh mandate or get banished from national politics altogether.
Over the years, public media have taken a crucial role in elections, giving competing political parties – do not mind their lack of clear ideologies— the platform the articulate their policies.
This is well-articulated by Catherine Musuva, who wrote in Chapter 7 in Denis Kadima and Susan Booysen (eds)’s Compendium of Elections in Southern Africa 1989-2009: 20 Years of Multiparty Democracy, thus:
“The PPEA [Parliamentary and Presidential Elections Act, 1993] states that every political party is entitled to have its campaign reported on by the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) and in any newspaper in circulation in the country. Furthermore, the Act commits the MBC to neutrality in the reporting of news.
“The Act also empowers the Mec, by arrangement with the MBC, to allocate time on the radio to political parties. Although the Act prohibits political parties and candidates from making commercial advertisements for campaigning in the MBC, all political parties either placed commercial advertisements with the MBC or complained of a lack of financial resources to do so in the run-up to the 2004 elections. At the time, neither the MBC nor the political parties seemed to be aware of the law in this regard.
“The electronic and print media coverage of electoral campaigns in Malawi has generally been extensive. However, concerns over unbalanced media coverage and the unfair use of the state media, namely the MBC and Malawi Television (TVM), have been raised in all four elections held from 1994 to 2009. In order to ensure better-balanced media coverage of the 2004 elections, a number of steps were taken in collaboration with political parties, the Mec, CSOs and the donor community. Most importantly, a media monitoring unit was established within the Mec. Nonetheless, in the 2004 elections the MBC coverage was biased towards the incumbent party, the UDF (Rakner & Svasand 2005).”
However, while the role of MBC has been extensively highlighted, it is not always the case that the institution lives up to citizens’ billing.  Musuva aptly captures this aspect of MBC.
“The Mec once again accused the state-owned media of bias and not abiding by the media code of conduct. The MEC chairperson berated the state media for failing to level the playing field, adding that the MEC's hands were tied in dealing with the situation as the law does not provide it with any significant power (Kasawala 2009).”
While observers such as human rights activist Billy Mayaya observes that the 1994 elections were “fairly” covered by MBC, in that all political parties were given the platform, it can be said, without fear of retraction, that this was not the case in the 1999, 2004, 2009 and 2014 elections, as ruling parties enjoyed more pieces of the cake than opposition political parties.
Ironically, the 1994 elections, which observers say were well covered, saw the then ruling Malawi Congress Party lose the elections to the United Democratic Front, whose presidential candidate Bakili Muluzi bought his ticket, courtesy of the ballot, to Sanjika Palace.
The only other time a ruling party – of course, there are questions over whether the People’s Party was really a ruling party, knowing, as it were, that the party found itself in the driving seat using the back door— lost presidential elections is in 2014, but Mec suggested in its media monitoring reports that the elections were no fairer than those of 1994.
Which brings us to the issue of the role of public [read, State] media in elections.
Same old script
Malawi’s post-1994 elections have been predictable in some aspects, notably conduct of public media and voting patterns.
Since 1994, when Malawians transformed the political landscape to a magnitude that signals nothing less than a fundamental mutation in the national character, the conduct of elections have been predictable in terms of regional voting patterns and ruling parties’ conduct over state-run media.
Let us start with regional patterns. In 1994, Malawians voted along regional lines. This is evident in the fact that the eventual presidential winner, Muluzi, got 42.2 percent (South), Kamuzu Banda 33.5 per cent from his Central region stronghold and Chakufwa Chihana (Alliance for Democracy) with 18.9 per cent, mainly from the Northern region.
This was almost repeated in 1999 when Muluzi got 51.37 percent in the South, the Malawi Congress Party/Alliance for Democracy coalition 44.30 per cent in the Central and Northern region, respectively, and Kamlepo Kalua who got 1.43percent of the national vote.
This was further repeated in 2004, when UDF presidential candidate Bingu wa Mutharika chalked 35.89 per cent in the South, Malawi Congress Party’s (MCP) John Tembo 27.13 per cent and Gwanda Chakuamba of the Mgwirizano Coalition 25.72 per cent.
To cut a disappointing story short, this was further repeated in 2009 and 2014 and, possible, will be repeated in the 2019 elections.
Add to these two challenges factors such as the legal environment in which the electoral body operates, budgeting constraints, complex processes leading to voter registration and voters roll verification, transportation hitches as well as registration periods corroding with the farming season or rains and we have another disaster in the making in 2019.
Perhaps the only positive— which, again, has been challenged— is that data gathered by the National Registration Bureau will be used in registering voters in the 2019 elections, which could solve some of the challenges that affect voters roll credibility.
But some of the challenges may remain because, according to policy analyst Rafiq Hajat, both ruling political parties and the opposition have vested interests in, say, public media.
“There was time, I remember, when the opposition were in majority in Parliament but never
amended the Communications Act, thinking they would go into government and take advantage of the situation,” he said.
So, again, this is just a circle— like breathing in and out— and some of the challenges will, really, never go away because they serve defined purposes.

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