Malawi: Where are the democrats?

You cannot imagine my excitement when I heard that the Centre for Multiparty Democracy is consulting various stakeholders in formulating a more progressive and meaningful Political Parties Act. Among other things, the proposed legislation seeks to bring order and sanity to the conduct of the country’s political party politics by making it more difficult to register a party and making existing parties more democratic.

For me, there could never be a better time for such legislation. In a few weeks’ time, the country will commemorate 20 years since the all-important referendum that changed our political course. After experimenting with the multiparty system for so long, we must have learnt all the relevant lessons and we should now be in a position to make it work more effectively and serve the nation better.

One of the most crucial provisions in the proposed law is the requirement for anyone seeking to register a political party to collect at least 20 signatures of registered voters from every constituency. What that means is that with 193 constituencies at the moment no one will be allowed to register a party unless at least 3 860 signatures have been collected from all over the country.

Kizito Tenthani head of Centre for Multiparty Democracy

Kizito Tenthani head of Centre for Multiparty Democracy

At the moment, a political party can be registered with only 100 signatures and there is no prescription on where these should be from. In practical terms, those signatures can be obtained from one village. The new proposal means political parties registered under this legislation will have to wear a national face. I know there will be those who would argue that a political party does not always have to be national.

The proposed legislation further demands that as a party goes for registration, it should have a constitution, manifesto, symbol, physical address, official colours, name, details of bank accounts, list of trustees, list of members of its national executive committee and their addresses. Apart from that, every registered party would have to maintain and regularly update a list of its members.

Political parties also risk being de-registered if they fail to field candidates in two consecutive national elections or if they fail to hold national elections conferences for a minimum of four consecutive years. You and I know how many of the forty-something parties currently in the Registrar General’s books would still be there if the proposed legislation were to come into effect today.

You can see from all these requirements that we may do away with briefcase parties whose only known member is the president. In some cases, you cannot even be sure if the spouse is a member, not that it matters a great deal. What is clear, however, is that people will no longer use parties that do not exist beyond the boundaries of their compound as a platform for making noise or bargaining for positions.

The new Act also promises to bring about transparency to our political parties because every registered member of a political party will be empowered by law to have “reasonable” access to all official records maintained by the party. By emphasising on registration, which will involve some fee, it makes ownership of political parties broader than is so far the case where party funding is a closely held secret.

There would even be more transparency where the legislation obliges every party to submit audited accounts for all funds provided by the State. There is also the requirement for every registered political party to declare all its fixed assets to the Registrar of Political Parties, who shall be answerable to Parliament, This would avoid some of the fights for assets that we have seen in our parties.

Sounds too good to be true, not so? Do you really see this law seeing the light of day? Is it even probable that our parties would want this much regulation after enjoying the current free-for-all? Are our leaders ready to be exposed to more scrutiny and examination? If you ask me, it will be tough to force our parties, especially the leadership, to let this happen. No one wants to leave their comfort zones.

We have all seen how the national conventions have gone so far. Yes, there were elections but one does not need to be a rocket scientist to know that the process was engineered to facilitate victory for some people, especially the presidents. No one can convince me that the only person who really wanted to challenge President Joyce Banda for the PP presidency was that little-known gentleman who eventually pulled out.

You also saw how the divisions in the UDF were cunningly engineered to ensure that a certain section was sidelined and my friend Atupele Muluzi got a free ride. And did we not hear from the DPP secretary general Jean Kalirani that it was an act of betrayal for Speaker of the National Assembly Henry Chimunthu Banda to challenge anointed leader Peter Mutharika? You expect such leaders to smile at this law?

More than a law, therefore, what we need most is a comprehensive change of the mindset because although we claim to be in democracy, we are yet to produce democrats in our political parties. If we cannot embrace democracy in our parties, it is highly inconceivable that we can ensure the same on the national scale. Can real democrats raise their hands and ensure that this law comes to pass.

  • The original version of this article appeared in print: Nation on Sunday of June 2, 2013. The author Graciun Tukula also blogs at graciantukula.wordpress.com
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