The Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) says its redemarcation exercise will increase the number of electoral constituencies from the current 193, raising concerns of a bloated Parliament wage bill and overburdening taxpayers.
During a media engagement in Lilongwe yesterday, MEC chairperson Justice Chifundo Kachale said the commission is set to conduct a comprehensive exercise to ensure that constituencies and ward boundaries conform with constitutional provisions.
Experts have since warned that any increase in the number of constituencies will be an economic burden to taxpayers, suggesting the focus should be on ensuring that constituencies have equal numbers to ensure every citizen is properly represented.
But in his speech, Kachale said the exercise will address anomalies that have crept in the past 23 years.
He said: “It is anticipated that the review is most likely going to result in an increase of number of constituencies. New boundaries will be drawn and will not necessarily follow the current ones since the current boundaries were drawn without regard to the constitutional provision and cannot hold considering the current demographics…
“We have constituencies that have more than 10 times eligible voters than others. This is against Section 76 (2) (a) of the Constitution which provides that the determination of constituency boundaries must ensure that constituencies contain approximately equal numbers of voters eligible to vote subject only to population density, ease of communication and existing administrative areas.”
The MEC chairperson acknowledged that the constituency and ward demarcation exercise is a sensitive political process where perceptions and accusations of gerrymandering are often present.
“It is politically sensitive because it is the number of constituencies that determine political representation of political parties in Parliament, that affects political power distribution on the ground and therefore, we have to manage the process knowing it has direct implications in our democracy and affects the seats across the country,” he said.
Kachale said he hopes by December 2022 the exercise, which is estimated to cost K1.5 billion, will have been completed.
Meanwhile, Centre for Research and Consultancy executive director Milward Tobias has warned that any increase in the number of constituencies will be an economic burden to taxpayers.
The annual wage bill for MPs rose from K15.4 billion in the 2019/20 National Budget to K20.7 billion in the current budget after the lawmakers gave themselves huge allowance and salary hikes.
Figures show that salaries for Parliament jumped from K2.4 billion in the 2019/20 Budget to K3.4 billion in the 2020/21 Budget, while allowances rose from K2.2 billion in 2019/20 Budget to K5.01 billion, internal travel was at K4.39 billion and external travel was pegged at K744 million.
Besides getting over K2.2 million monthly in salary and allowances, each member of Parliament (MP) is also entitled to K40 million Constituency Development Fund (CDF) per annum.
In an interview yesterday, Tobias, who did not attend the media engagement, said he believes that the 193 MPs are already too many for a small economy like Malawi and an increase in their number would overburden the taxpayer.
He called for a proper balance between economic and governance, saying Malawi should not be in a situation where governance becomes a burden to the economy but rather it should be a catalyst for development.
Said Tobias: “Already, 193 members of Parliament are too many. In my opinion, MEC should have been using the redemarcation exercise to reduce the number of constituencies.
“Redemarcation doesn’t mean to increase. I am against the idea of increasing constituencies because it will contribute to a bloated budget and a drain on public resources which could have been used for national development.”
He faulted the model of sharing CDF equally when some constituencies are more populated or less developed than others.
“There is need for an equitable distribution of wealth, for instance, based on population of people per constituency,” stated Tobias.
He argued that even with the demarcation exercise, there is little proof that people will have their full and equal representation in terms of development initiatives, saying there are numerous factors that hamper development than a mere representation in Parliament.
University of Malawi’s political administration professor Blessings Chinsinga also said Malawi may not afford to have an increased number of constituencies given its economic status.
He said the focus of the exercise should not necessarily be on creating new constituencies but ensuring that constituencies have equal numbers to ensure each and every citizen is properly represented.
Said Chinsinga: “In an ideal situation, we needed to have reduced number of constituencies because the constituencies with bigger numbers would feed into those with smaller numbers”.
He said there are serious disparities in representation in Parliament with the smallest constituency of Likoma having about 5 000 people while the biggest has over 40 000 people.
On his part, another University of Malawi political science lecturer Mustapha Hussein yesterday described the exercise as important, saying it will address political under-representation in some constituencies that are bigger than others.
He urged caution, saying if not well managed, some affected strongholds of political parties where the demarcation exercise will take place might be contested.
On the costs implications, Hussein said democracy is costly; hence, in the spirit of achieving equal representation and for the maturity of democracy, the exercise is justified.
He said: “Democracy is very costly, but representation is critical because people need to have equal representation. However, government should assess whether this exercise is affordable. I am sure it is affordable because we hear of public funds being lost to corruption, so ways and means of sourcing funds are available.”
The call to have big constituencies split have been made by various stakeholders, including President Lazarus Chakwera and Vice-President Saulos Chilima during the May 2019 Tripartite Elections campaign.
At the time, Chilima said some constituencies were too big which affects development; hence, the need to split them.
MEC anticipates that the general outcome of the exercise is that no council will lose an existing constituency. However, considering the formula it has adopted and other considerations as provided by the law, some councils might gain constituencies.
MEC believes the determination and review of the boundaries will not be arbitrary as the commission has devised a standard formula named National Quotient (NQ) that will be applied nationwide.
The formulation of the NQ has been guided by the requirement of the Constitution that boundaries must be determined impartially on the basis of ensuring that constituencies must contain approximately equal number of voters eligible to register.
In 2017, various stakeholders called for the splitting of constituencies that are deemed big in terms of area and population size.
The demarcation exercise was recently delayed after President Lazarus Chakwera fired two MEC commissioners Jean Mathanga and Linda Kunje, a development which disabled MEC operations.
A similar exercise last took place in 1999 when 16 more constituencies were created—from 177 to the current 193.