Elections do have consequences: The case of Section 65

When Pope John Paul II died, speculation was rife among Africans that the next pope will be a Nigerian. Cardinal Francis Arinze was one of the senior advisers of Paul John Paul II and therefore considered ‘papabile’ by many.

Vatican experts, however, downplayed the prospects of Arinze by citing the church’s long tradition of preferring to elevate to the papacy only those cardinals who grew up in a catholic background. Francis Arinze came to Catholicism as a convert from African traditional religion.

We probably will never know whether this was the reason the papal conclave of 2005 preferred Joseph Ratzinger to Francis Arinze. However, the Catholic Church does have a point here. Foundations and backgrounds are important enough to shape human beings for life, regardless of transformations they may go through. The same is also true with nations.

If you look at the conversations and debates we are having at the moment in Malawi, it is not difficult to figure out that we come from a dictatorial background. Whatever democratic transformations we have passed through in the past 20 years, the genes of a dictatorial culture are still apparent especially in our desire to clamp on other each others freedoms.

Some of the hangovers from our birthing dictatorship are very much evident in the current debate on Section 65 of our constitution. The section reads:

  1. 1.        The Speaker shall declare vacant the seat of any member of the National Assembly who was, at the time of his or her election, a member of one political party represented in the National Assembly, other than by that member alone but who has voluntarily ceased to be a member of that party or has joined another political party represented in the National Assembly, or has joined any other political party, or association or organization whose objectives or activities are political in nature.
  2. 2.        Notwithstanding subsection (1), all members of all parties shall have the absolute right to exercise a free vote in any and all proceedings of the National Assembly, and a a member shall not have his or her seat declared vacant solely on account of his or her voting in contradiction to the recommendations of a political party, represented in the National Assembly, of which he or she is a member.

The section has been in the news a lot lately because we have MPs who feel they are not adequate enough unless they are part of the ruling party. When Joyce Banda came to power with her PP, a lot MPs belonging to the DPP and UDF, expressed their desire to defect to the PP.

In parliament, however, they cannot officially join the PP because Section 65 of the Constitution bars them from joining a party already represented in parliament without having their seats declared vacant. Nevertheless, using a loophole in the Section, these MPs have managed to defect from their parties by simply declaring themselves as independents ‘that sit on government side’.

Understandably the DPP, which has bled lots of MPs to the ruling party, is seeking to have the Speaker of Parliament use Section 65 to declare seats of all these cunning MPs vacant.

A couple of interesting observations here:

First, the tendency to always want to defect to a ruling party is clearly rooted in our past where everybody belonged to the one and only party, which also happened to be the ruling party. It is simplistic to think that these defections are just about greed, as some commentators seem to suggest.

The problem is much deeper than that. Most of these MPs know fully well that crossing the floor will not increase their income in any way. But they just feel they will not becomplete if they do not belong to a ruling party. It is a sad commentary of where our mentality is in 2012.

Second, why does a democratic country with a constitution that errors on the side of personal rights require a Section 65? This also has its roots in our dictatorial past. It borrows from a dictator’s desire to control people. In our current dispensation, MPs must be free to belong to any party they choose. And if they lose confidence in their parties, they should have flexibility to move on.

A member of parliament represents the people who elected him. They are his bosses. They trusted this person to make decisions for their constituent for the next 5 years. He should be allowed to exercise that right. After all, he is always in contact with them. If the President or Vice President changed parties, their offices would not be declared vacant. Why should we treat MPs any differently? Section 65 is unfair and must be removed.

Malawians need to know that elections have consequences and must be taken seriously. We must only vote for people because of their integrity and commitment to the development of this country. And if you vote for a person only because he comes from your village or tribe, do not complain when he defects without good reason. This is what democracy is about.

As important as this Section 65 debate is, it is simply a symptom of a much larger problem. Our main problem is that we are a nation conceived in a dictatorship. And despite two decades of democratic governments, our people still need to be schooled on the culture of democracy. Once we cement that culture of democracy, everything else will take care of itself.

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