In this interview, our Staff Reporter AYAMI MKWANDA engages Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) spokesperson Sangwani Mwafulirwa on preparations for the long-awaited by-elections slated for April 10 2018 in Milonde and Malindi wards in Mulanje and Mangochi respectively.
Why is it important for MEC to hold these by-elections with just 14 months to next year’s tripartite elections?
The by-elections are held in accordance with the law. Section 23(2) of the Local Government Elections Act mandates the commission to conduct by-elections whenever there is a vacancy of a ward. The commission is treating these by-elections seriously and all procedures within the precincts of the law are being followed. There might be temptations to trivialise the local by-elections and place them under the shadow of the tripartite elections. But to the commission, there is no small election. Every election is serious business. While the views that are contrary to the holding of the by-elections might be popular now, but the law must be respected and upheld. The people in the two wards deserve representation in the council. It is the responsibility and legal mandate of the commission to ensure that is preserved.
MEC has on several occasions been faced with situations of low funding. How much has government released for these by-elections?
The principle of democratic representation cannot be given a monetary value or be substituted. Councillors do important work in representing their people in councils. The by-elections are expected to cost about K254 million. The importance of the two wards having representation in the council should not be denied on the basis of cost of holding the by-elections. MEC has really come up with a shoe-string budget by salvaging materials from the warehouse and gleaning savings from other activities to avoid incurring other expenses.
Don’t these by-elections draw away the attention of the commission from preparations for 2019 Tripartite Elections?
The holding of these by-elections will require time and dedication of human resources. MEC has put in place measures to ensure that roll out of activities for the 2019 Tripartite Elections is not affected by the holding of these by-elections. There is articulate allocation of staff and resources to the two activities so that none suffers. The nation and all stakeholders should rest assured that all activities are under control.
In 2017, the commission postponed elections because government did not release funds. Won’t this happen with these by-elections?
We don’t see any possibility of stopping the by-elections half-way and resuming at a later time. That
would disturb the timing. MEC has planned everything in a manner that the by-elections have to be held before the start of registration of voters for the tripartite elections which is a big scale activity that will require more staff and resources. It will be in the interest of all stakeholders to have these by-elections held now and disposed of. When it comes to funding, we are using savings and materials that were left over from past by-elections.
At what point will MEC stop conducting by-elections so that it gives itself enough time to concentrate on preparations for the 2019 elections?
We are hoping that, as we go towards the 2019 Tripartite Elections, there will not be any more vacancies that will require MEC to hold by-elections that fall close to the tripartite elections. The commission has planned that the cut-off point be 12 months to tripartite elections. From the look of things this could be the last by-elections.
What are you doing to reduce voter apathy usually associated with by-elections?
The commission has stepped up voter education in the country through public meetings with traditional leaders and their subjects, deploying loudhailer mobilising teams which have also been distributing brochures, posters, letters and other civic education materials. We have crisscrossed the wards reaching out to every corner with messages encouraging the electorate to participate effectively in election activities.
The civic education teams have also taken time to teach them how to vote with the aim of minimising the number of null and void votes. From the observation of the registration process, there are indicators that participation will be high. During the registration process which ran from March 1-6, there was high turnout of people coming to register and verify their details in the voters’ register.
What message do you have for the registered voters and candidates?
Every election is serious business. MEC is not compromising the standards because the current by-elections are in two wards. We expect effective participation from stakeholders like in any other election held hitherto. We encourage all people to be patronising campaign rallies of all candidates so that they make informed decisions on April 10 when they go for voting in their large numbers. All stakeholders should be assured that it is always in the interest of the commission to hold by-elections as soon as a vacancy arises and we will always endeavour to fulfil this.