Saturday, April 26, 2008

On the UDF Convention and Why Muluzi will not get my vote

I find it a sad reflection of the times we are living and the serious challenges that Malawi's democracy faces, that former President Bakili Muluzi and his UDF party are now passing as the most democratic party in the selection of their presidential candidate in next May's elections. The ruling DPP, meanwhile, appears content to approach the elections without a Convention to at least formally endorse Mutharika as their flag bearer and also allow the party membership the first ever opportunity to interact with the party's unelected big-wigs. Like the DPP, the MCP too, seems unconcerned about holding on a convention, having unofficially settled on their incumbent party leader, John Tembo, to lead them into next year's elections.

UDF have to be congratulated for organising the recent Convention to choose their presidential candidate. One can only hope the other main parties will follow suit to enable the ordinary membership to at least have some say on their choice of candidates. Although I would not expect any major upsets from such exercises, Conventions would provide important opportunities for the delegates to endorse what are otherwise predetermined choice of candidates and sprinkle the processes with some semblance of democratic credibility. It is hard otherwise, to imagine a party like the DPP going into an election when they have only transitional structures personally appointed by President Mutharika alone. Unless the political parties demonstrate some levels of intra-party democracy , it is hard to perceive them playing according to the democratic rules on the national stage. Democracy, in simple words, is not possible without democrats.

However, before we get too carried away with the recent UDF convention, we should not lose sight of the fact that Muluzi’s victory at the Convention was a largely foregone conclusion. Anyone who seriously believed that Muluzi could lose must be unaware of how much the odds were heavily stacked in his favour: he is not only the largest benefactor for the party, but he also provided a substantial chunk of the resources for the Convention itself. While Muluzi expressed interest to contest a long way back, and therefore had the opportunity to campaign and structure the Convention delegates in his favour, his lone challenger, Cassim Chilumpha, has been closeted at his Mudi House for the better part of three years as he answers to treason charges in the High Court. He only announced his candidature a few weeks prior to the elections, making it exceedingly difficult for him to mount an effective campaign against Muluzi.

I also have serious doubts about the democratic credibility of the party membership that took part in the convention itself. For a party that has not held any elections at the local level for a long time, the majority of individuals holding positions at the various structures of the party are largely appointed, mostly through Muluzi’s own patronage network. It is expecting too much, then, that these people would vote against their main patron simply because a Convention is being held. It is, to me, a joke to think the UDF has become democratic by simply holding a Convention when the delegates to the convention are not themselves democratically chosen.

While holding a convention is an important step, the top-down approach that is used to select and handpick delegates, defeats the entire purpose of a democratic convention - which is to give the ordinary rank and file party membership, a say in the choice of their party candidate. A truly genuine democratic process should have started with democratic elections at the bottom rungs of the UDF party structure to enable their membership chose who should be the eventual delegates to the Convention. Alternatively, all UDF members should be given equal say to vote for their choice of presidential candidate. Otherwise, this is a sham and cosmetic democracy.

I would also wish to comment on my disappointment that the UDF, with its acclaimed high membership across the country, feel the best they can offer is to field a candidate who has already served two terms in office. Even if I was to be persuaded to believe that Muluzi did a wonderful job in his first ten years in office (and it would not be a mean achievement to convince me), I just cannot accept that the UDF does not have any other individuals from within their ranks that are capable of leading the party into the next elections. The only way we know Muluzi has the potential to be President is because he was given the chance to serve in the first place. This only goes to show that what the country, and the UDF, lack is not people with leadership potential, but opportunities to serve. If Muluzi is so important to the UDF, he can serve an important advisory role to a different UDF nominee instead of clinging on to the candidacy himself.
I will not even venture into discussing the implications of Muluzi’s candidacy with regards to section 83 of the constitution, which limits individuals into serving a maximum of two consecutive terms of office. Suffice it to say that there are differing interpretations of the section, especially the inclusion of the word consecutive. However, before we get bogged down with semantics, I would like to ask all of us to pose for a minute and think, not about the literal meaning of the section, but rather, the spirit that influenced the framers of the Constitution into including this provision.
In my previous posting, I indicated that I would not support Hilary Clinton’s candidacy because I feel the United States, a country of 300 million people, should have myriad of individuals and families that can produce a president and not the Bushes or the Clintons alone. Maintaining that same principle, I cannot support Muluzi’s candidacy. If I am in Malawi in May of next year, I will not be voting for him.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The US primary Elections and my support for Obama

A number of people have asked me to speed up the entries on the US presidential elections. Here's my first entry, which ends with my endorsement of Barack Obama.

The process of picking up the candidates
Unlike in our mother Malawi, where all the main parties have effectively picked their candidates for the 2009 elections without even going through the required conventions, the two major political parties in the United States - the Democrats and the Republicans-follow a rather elaborate system of picking their presidential candidates. It is important, firstly, to note that in the United States, voter registration requires individuals to also indicate their party membership (they can also choose the independent option).

Each party basically calls upon its membership to choose the choice of party candidate. This is done in two ways: either there is a primary election in each of the 50 states of the United States (plus a few other territories and US citizens abroad). In the primary elections, members of each political party get to vote from a list of aspirants their choice of candidates. The second method - used mostly by Democrats is to conduct a party caucus - a system which brings together Local party members for an evening of debate before deciding who they will support for their party's presidential nomination. The process is open for all to see and takes place in someone's home or a town hall rather than a voting booth.
The rules on who can participate in which primary election or caucus differ from state to state and by party. In some states, the elections are open, meaning that an individual can choose whichever primary (Democrat or Republican) to participate in, irrespective of their party-affiliation. Some primaries are however closed to members of particular parties. The rules, however, allow people to switch their party affiliation but an individual can only take part in one primary or caucus, not both.

Based on the performance of each candidate in the party primary or caucus, the share of the vote is translated into “pledged delegates” – that is individuals who will finally take part in the Party convention to formally choose the party presidential candidate later in the year. Different states have different number of delegates, depending on demographics. In all, the Democrats allocate a total of 4,047 delegates, which means that the winning candidate needs at least 2,024 delegates to win. The Republicans have a total of 2,380 candidates. Thus for one to win the Republican party nomination, he or she has to secure at least 1,191 delegates.

The current candidates


In the current run of primaries, the Democratic party started off with a field of eight candidates. However, following poor following in the early rounds of Primary/caucuses, six of the candidates have since dropped out, leaving Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton as the only two candidates still standing. At the time of writing, barrack Obama is leading in the total delegate count, the total number of States won and the overall share of the vote. In terms of the number of pledged delegates, Obama has won 1,418 elected delegates, compared to 1,250 for Clinton. On the surface, the gap of 168 might seem too tiny. However, when considering that the Democrats allocate delegates proportionally to the vote, it is not an easy figure to overturn. In addition to the elected delegates, the Democrats also have a total of 795 “Super delegates” - members of the Democratic National Committee, elected officials like senators or governors, or party leaders. They do not have to indicate a candidate preference and do not have to compete for their position. Currently, Clinton leads in the number of pledged delegates, with a total of 248 compared to Obama’s 226. Of the 42 states that have already held their Democratic Party primaries or caucus, Obama has won 28 against Clinton’s 14.


The Republican Party started off with a field of seven candidates. After coming from behind, Senator john McCain from Arizona secured the required minimum number of votes to win the Republican ticket. As of April 20th, McCain has a total number of 1,331 pledged delegates, way past the minimum of 1,191 required to secure the Republican Party ticket.

The Lessons of American Presidential Selection process for Malawi

I have to say I like the way the US political parties involve the ordinary membership in the selection of their presidential candidates. Unlike the Malawi system, the US process is open to the participation of the ordinary membership across the entire country. The system compels candidates to adopt a national agenda and seek to win the support of their membership in each individual state. If this were imported into Malawi, all individuals aspiring for presidential office would be required to mount national campaigns, going to each individual district to seek the vote of their party membership instead of simply relying on delegates to party conventions, the majority of whom are themselves unelected and simply answerable to the whims of the leadership. Apart from the influence such a process would give to the electorate, it would also contribute to the building of political parties that are truly national, as opposed to regional or ethnic-based parties as is the case at the present moment.

That said, I have to acknowledge too that the US process is very expensive. What I find interesting though is that the presidential campaigns are usually funded by public donations, and not necessarily from the state. This also goes to further entrench the democratic process as it gives the ordinary people a stake in the democratic process that is perhaps missing in our politics. By contrast, our major political parties are usually financed by single individuals who in turn wield significant power and influence that enables them to become de-facto life presidents for their parties.

Obama my Man

If I had the vote in the US, I would vote for the Democrats. As those who know American politics will tell, the Republicans are largely Conservative, largely inward looking in my view and less interested in the wider world. They are less interested in looking after the interests of the common man, preferring instead to promote policies that pander to the wishes of the mega-rich in society. The Republican Party, as far as I am concerned, attracts individuals that hold bigoted views of Black people.

Of the remaining two Democrats, my choice is firmly Obama. Either of the two candidates will make history: if elected, Obama will be the first Black President in the United States, while Clinton would be the first woman President. While both candidates have more or less identical policies on most major issues, I am reluctant to lend my support to Hilary Clinton on one count and one count alone: in a country of nearly 300 million people, I cannot be convinced that there are only two households that can produce Presidents: the Bushes and the Clintons. While Clinton has campaigned on a platform of long years of public service, I have to say I am not persuaded to think that simply because one was a First lady, then they are prepared for the presidency. Firstly, this would mean no one who has not had a close relation as President would qualify as US president. In any case, I don’t think being First Lady prepares anyone for the post of the Presidency – in the same way that I cannot claim to be qualified to be a Librarian just because my wife works in the Library at Chancellor College.

Obama, on the other hand, presents a fresh breathe into politics. He has generated a new interest in politics, brining a lot of excitement and interest in politics, especially among the youth. Of the two democrats, only Obama has the potential to bring about real change in American politics as well as to change the negative image of the United States elsewhere. Judging by his foreign policy statements, I am convinced this is a man who will not only bring in a new era of international politics that is less confrontational, but would also move us away from the unilateralism that has marked US foreign policy in the last couple of years.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Who Has the Power to Convene Parliament in Malawi: the Speaker or the President?

After a seven months hiatus, the news that Parliament will at long last be meeting at the end of the month is welcome as it is long overdue. Most commentators have already expressed their happiness and appreciation that this important arm of government will once again be able to play its full role in the democratic process at a time when the country seems to be regressing back towards a new form of personal rule.

One question that has been lost in the course of the excitement generated by the news of the reconvening of parliament, but one which I feel has important implications on the future of democracy in the country is: who has the power to convene Parliament?

Speaking to members of the Press upon arrival from his recent trip to China, President Bingu wa Mutharika expressed the view that the Constitution gives his the exclusive powers to decide when to convene and prologue Parliament. If that is the case, I would contend that the law gives too much power to the Executive branch of government by subjecting the operation of the Legislature to the will of the Executive. Suffice it to say that if such is the case, then we have a big problem in our hands as our democracy can be held to ransom by a single individual in the form of the president, depriving the ordinary masses their right to representation through their elected representatives.

Indeed, the recent episode has demonstrated that the President can choose to effectively shut down Parliament in order to protect his or her own partisan interests: In this particular case, it is an open secret that the President has been peeved by the opposition’s willingness to use their parliamentary majority to frustrate the government’s agenda in the National Assembly. Further, with the constant threat of the Speaker of Parliament being pushed to invoke the now infamous section 65 of the constitution to declare vacant the seats of those legislators who have abandoned the political parties that sponsored them into Parliament in the last elections, the President and his party, the DPP, has been the main beneficiary from the recent parliamentary dormancy.

But does the Constitution, that piece of document that enjoys the status of the Supreme law of the land, empower the President to effectively call parliament at his own pleasure as Mutharika claims?

The provision governing the convening Parliamentary sessions and prolongation of the same, is provided for under section 59(1), a, b and c. This states:

59(1) Every session of the National Assembly shall be held at such place within Malawi and shall commence at such time as each Speaker, in consultation with the President, may appoint and the sittings of each Chamber after the commencement of that session shall be held at such times and on such days as that Chamber shall appoint:

Provided that-- (a) the President, in consultation with the Speaker, may summon, on extraordinary occasions, a meeting of the National Assembly; and

(b) the President may, in consultation with the Speaker, prorogue the National Assembly.

A careful reading of section 59(1) above shows that the Constitution confers three different powers:

1) The authority to convene ordinary sessions of Parliament- given to the Speaker “in consultation with the president”.

2) The authority to summon extraordinary sessions; - given to the president, “in consultation with the Speaker”; and

3) The authority to prorogue parliament- given to the president, “in consultation with the Speaker”

It is thus my belief that the president’s reading and interpretation of the Constitution is wrong. While he is correct to assert that he acted within his powers to have prorogued parliament after the passage of the Budget last year, he does not, contrary to his recent claims, have the power to decide when to convene Parliament. That authority belongs to the Speaker, with the president’s role limited to an advisory one upon being consulted by the Speaker.

Now, some might argue that the requirement that the Speaker should consult the President effectively gives the Head of State a veto power over the Speaker’s decision. The recent High Court ruling in the case where opposition parties challenged the appointment of new Commissioners for the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) is quite illuminating in this respect. In this case, former President,. Bakili Muluzi, and current MCP president and Leader of Opposition, Mr. John Tembo, were challenging the validity of new MEC Commissioners that were appointed by President Mutharika without including their choice of appointees(being Miscellaneous Civil Cause Number 99 of 2007; The State and The President of the Republic of Malawi –Respondents; ex Parte Dr. Bakili Muluzi and John Z.U. Tembo – 1st and 2nd Applicants respectively). As in the case of the power to convene parliament, section 75 of the Constitution, as read with Section 4 of the EC Act, gives the power to appoint MEC Commissioners to the President in consultation with the leaders of the main opposition parties represented in Parliament. However, although the applicants suggested their own names for inclusion as MEC Commissioners, the President ignored them and proceeded to appoint his own nominees as new Commissioners. The applicants took this matter to court where they argued that Mutharika’s decision was contrary to what the law stipulates since the MEC appointments were made without consulting them. they therefore pleaded with the court to declare the appointments unlawful and consequently null and void.

Passing his judgment on the matter, Justice Potani made reference to two separate rulings from the High Court of Botswana that are of interest in our own question here. These decisions held that:

Consultation does not require the decision maker to accept the views of those he consults. He may quite properly reject their views, as long as he takes them properly into account before doing so;” and that

“the term consultation is a much less forceful term than “recommendation.”

In the end, Justice Potani dismissed the Muluzi and Tembo’s case, pointing out that “consultation should not be confused with recommendation as the latter entails the final step before a decision is made and plays a prominent role in the final decision while consultation has very little effect on the final decision. The respondent, therefore, cannot be faulted for rejecting the proposal by the applicants”.

Applied to the question of who has power to decide when and where to convene Parliament, the ruling in the MEC case would imply that although the Speaker is by law required to consult the President, he is not bound to go along with any advice the president gives. In other words, the Speaker holds the ultimate authority in deciding when to convene Parliament and his decision cannot be vetoed by the President who he is required to consult. Similarly, if the President decides to call for an extraordinary session of parliament or prorogue any session, he is required to consult the Speaker but is not bound by any contrary views.

Parliament’s failure to meet for such a long time has been a major disappointment for those of us who love democracy and long for its prospering in Malawi. Apart from the failure to pass numerous laws, we have also as a country lost out millions of tax payers hard-earned money to pay the salaries and other incidental allowances to Members of parliament who have largely been idle or attending to other personal businesses (the few Parliamentary Committee meetings excepted).

Given that the law places the responsibility of convening Parliament on the Speaker, I would venture further here to argue that the Speaker’s office has to accept most of the blame over this matter. However, all of us collectively also have to accept the blame for not pressurizing our elected leaders enough to live up to what we elected them to do for us.

Meanwhile, the interpretation given by Mutharika in his Press Conference of last week that he and only he has the power to decide on when to convene parliament, is not only erroneous, but would also suggest to me that the president is playing double standards in his interpretation of the law. When it came to consulting the opposition leaders of parties represented in Parliament to select members of the Electoral Commission, the President clearly decided not to accommodate the input of the opposition leaders in the consultation process. Yet, in the current case, the same Mutharika takes the position that the requirement that obligates the Speaker to consult him on when to convene Parliament, transfers this authority to the presidency. It is, to say the least, a very subjective interpretation that does not bode well for the future of our young democracy.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Words of Wisdom: Heaven and Hell

A holy man was having a conversation with the Lord one day and said, "Lord, I would like to know what Heaven and Hell are like."

The Lord led the holy man to two doors.

He opened one of the doors and the holy man looked in. In the middle of the room was a large round table. In the middle of the table was a large pot of stew, which smelled delicious and made the holy man's mouth water.

The people sitting around the table were thin and sickly. They appeared to be famished. They were holding spoons with very long handles that were strapped to their arms and each found it possible to reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful. But because the handle was longer than their arms, they could not get the spoons back into their mouths.

The holy man shuddered at the sight of their misery and suffering.

The Lord said, "You have seen Hell."

They went to the next room and opened the door. It was exactly the same as the first one. There was the large round table with the large pot of stew which made the holy man's mouth water. The people were equipped with the same long-handled spoons, but here the people were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking. The holy man said, "I don't understand."

It is simple," said the Lord. "It requires but one skill. You see they have learned to feed each other, while the greedy think only of themselves."