Houdini-sque electoral reforms

What is happening in relation to the proposed electoral law reforms is fast becoming a charade, something like a Harry Houdini act. Harry Houdini, as we may recall, made his name as a magician and his particular specialty was escape stunts. History has it that during his life time, Houdini challenged numerous police forces across Europe and the USA to shackle him with their best cuffs and restraints but in all instances, he was able to free himself without the use of keys or any external assistance.

Houdini and his ilk are often referred to as magicians but I believe they are more accurately described when termed illusionists. After all, magical acts are no more than illusions achieved either by the performer’s sleight of hand or just general dexterity.

In my view, there are some wannabe illusionists afflicting the proposed electoral law reforms resulting in the current gridlock. I am not so sure about the motives of these folks but I can sense some nefarious intentions.

What has happened in recent weeks is very revealing and suggests, very convincingly, a number of things. Firstly, the Executive never wanted to table the proposed reforms in the National Assembly. This is not mere speculation for until there was a threat of nationwide demonstrations, the message from the Executive was that the bills proposed by the Law Commission were not ready for tabling in the National Assembly—this notwithstanding the fact that the Executive has had custody of the bills for about eight months.

As a matter of fact, the recent gimmicks by the Executive aside, it is clear that the Executive is still reluctant to table the entire package of the proposed electoral law reforms.

Secondly, the Executive only moved to table the bills in the National Assembly as something of a compromise (perhaps as an escape act in the Houdini tradition)—a way of averting the proposed PAC demonstrations and also a way of placating some rather agitated parliamentarians and citizens at large. It is clear that there was no goodwill to genuinely effect meaningful reforms.

Thirdly, because the Executive was never, in the first place, keen to present the proposed recommendations to the National Assembly, there has been a deliberate, and again I dare suggest, malicious distortion of the recommendations from the Law Commission with the result that the refusal of endorsement by the National Assembly was basically guaranteed. This is how this gimmick was worked out: the Executive deliberately watered down, distorted and slanted the recommendations of the Law Commission such that they could not, in any event, get approval in the National Assembly. This done, the Executive could then claim credit for presenting the recommendations to the National Assembly even though nothing was achieved in the end. Very sinister, I must say.

On this third point, I have to be very careful. As I have publicly conceded before, the recommendations from the Law Commission were not cast in stone akin to the Mosaic Ten Commandments. In any event, as the narrative to the report of the Special Law Commission evinces, there was a lot of debate and divergence of opinion on many of the proposals before compromises could be reached.

What the recommendations need at this juncture is a fair and balanced assessment conducted in good faith. Such process would then lead to the enactment of the required laws and amendments aimed at improving our electoral laws.

The machinations of the Executive in relation to the proposed electoral law reforms, I am afraid to say, seem to reveal a bad magician at work. The bills that were eventually presented to the National Assembly were not presented in good faith with the hope that they would be passed into law. The presentation of the bills was a formalistic, almost ritualistic act, simply for purposes of ticking a box(es).

While the Executive retains the mandate to review recommendations of the Law Commission, it is clear in the present case that the review emerged with substantive distortions that simply stupefied the Law Commission’s recommendations.

Take, for example, the now (in)famous 50+1 proposal. The Law Commission’s proposals were to extend this rule only to the presidency and reasons were given for this limitation. To extend the applicability of the 50+1 rule to parliamentarians and councillors, for me, speaks of ill-intentions on the proposers of the amendment.

Just to highlight one or two things, the office of the president is fundamentally different from the office of member of Parliament. These fundamental differences in the nature of the offices could justify a different election system for the two offices.

Secondly, and this has puzzled me somewhat, earlier some people speaking on behalf of the government suggested that Malawi could not sustain a two-round voting for the presidency due to its perennial resource constraints.

If, indeed, these resource constraints are real, would it make practical sense to broaden the two-round system to all tiers of elections in Malawi—just wondering!

So, in the end, we, as a nation, have done zilch on the proposed electoral law reforms. All the gesturing and posturing has come to nothing. It has all been nothing more than an illusion except that the magician(s) in this case seem rather incompetent.

There is a latent danger here. Some of the reforms being proposed by the Law Commission have become necessary for the holding of peaceful, free and fair elections. Our failure to enact these reforms, is simply stocking trouble. Perhaps we should go back and look at the entire package of proposals again, and as I have said, with a fair and balanced view.

While different interest groups are animated about different proposals within the package, in the end, it is the entire package that must be given a fair consideration.


Associate Professor of Law, UNIMAa

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