In May 2019, Malawians will participate in the ritual of a general election for the sixth time after the transition to multiparty democracy. We will get a fifth Vice-President (VP). Another soul in the office that has simply become a poisoned chalice of vices and potentially a new series of drama in the politics of succession, political relationships characterised by suspicion, a confounding of governance and development, assaults of the integrity of the office incumbent and unhealthy scheming and opportunism.
Our lived experience does not require a long narration. The Presidency is a conflicted office and being a VP is not virtuous. None of the incumbents have been able to see through their mandate with grace. They all completed their terms and Saulos Klaus Chilima (SKC) will also complete his. But none completed their mandate. It is evident that the current arrangement delivers a raw deal for Malawians, an undesirable outcome. I do not know how many electoral cycles or presidential terms will be enough to drive the message home into the heads of those who inhabit the institutions and offices that are mandated to address this institutional and agency malaise whose results we collectively detest.
Over the years, especially from 2003 to the present, proposals have been made to address the problem including litigation that sought to reinforce the proposals. Calls for resignation have been repeated for all VPs after Dr. Justin Malewezi under the pretext of encouraging them to preserve their personal integrity. But integrity so defined is such a small incentive that is outweighed by what is really at stake if the calls for resignations are heeded. Thus, none has resigned. Malewezi is the only VP to have resigned but in circumstances and ways that allowed him to complete his term of office nonetheless! Some have proposed removing the requirement of running mate for presidential election while others have proposed giving power to the president to fire the vice-president when the political calculus and chemistry no longer fit together and to hire another one.
All these proposals have huge potential to undermine democratic governance in various ways and to undermine the people’s aspirations that are in-built into the principles that informed the constitutional design of the presidency. I do not intend to carry out an assessment of these proposals here. My intention for this entry is to present a core diagnosis of the problem and start a debate on a new potential solution.
A careful review of our collective experiences with all the VPs so far clearly shows that the constitutional scheme for the presidency is weak for not spelling out specific core duties of the office of the VP. Duties for which the incumbent will not wait for or depend on the goodwill of the president to assign any temporary duties or roles. What we need is a solution that will reinforce the constitutional principles upon which the presidency is designed and obliges the President and the VP to effectively work together to execute the mandate of governing until the last minute of their term of office. Here is a simple but not simplistic solution to what has become a recurrent problem.
The Constitution should be amended in relevant sections. The amendments should effectively designate the vice-president as Leader of Government Business in the National Assembly and failure to discharge tasks related to this mandate should become grounds for impeachment. With this constitutional scheme, VPs will no longer renege on their duties while continuing to occupy the office as has been the case with four VPs so far.
Neither will presidents be able to warehouse VPs because any President needs a Leader of Government Business to manage and push through the legislative agenda. With this scheme, a VP cannot absent himself or herself from Cabinet meetings or avoid meeting the President because these are central for effective execution of the role of Leader of Government Business in the National Assembly.
Furthermore, as Leader of Government Business, the VP will wield authority over all portfolio Ministers and therefore preclude the political humiliation in which Cabinet ministers and other low-ranking politicians undermine and ridicule a VP, often to show their deep personal, almost patrimonial loyalty to the President. In short, this scheme will create a formal work relationship of mutual dependence between the President and the VP–a relationship in which the success of one depends significantly on the other. Mutual dependence on each other is the fibre and glue that binds political actors together.
Quite unlike the current situation where the President and VP can afford to go together through the presidential term without working together or meeting up. The properties of parallel lines should not be allowed to characterise the relationships in the presidency. The fallout between SKC and APM should be our last. n
- Henry Chingaipe is a governance and development specialist