Empowering the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) to punish abuse of public resources during elections could help level the electoral playing field, a law expert has said.
Associate professor of law at Chancellor College Edge Kanyongolo said since the general elections of 1994, there have been concerns over abuse of state resources by ruling parties during elections.
He noted that recommendations by election observer missions to level the playing field have been applied selectively, with those threatening the electoral advantage of the party in government being ignored, while those with little impact on the balance of political power are implemented.
Kanyongolo said the way to go is to empower MEC to punish those who abuse public resources during elections.
“MEC should be given explicit powers to treat any public official who authorises such use of resources as being in violation of not only the Constitution but also electoral laws,” he said.
Kanyongolo also proposed that Parliament should investigate alleged abuses of public resources in the same way it takes to task ministries and departments for non-election related abuses.
“Whether elections are free and fair depends on a wide range of factors of which implementation of the recommendations of observer missions is only a part. However, disregard of recommendations to improve the impartiality and efficiency of the registration and voting process, enhance the neutrality of public institutions and prevent the use of public resources for election campaigns will limit the fairness of the elections,” argued Kanyongolo.
Ruling parties in Malawi use state resources, including vehicles and state broadcasting services, purportedly conducting development meetings across the country while wooing people to support the party during elections.
Since 1994, the problem has been highlighted in reports by election observer missions, but little has been done to address the concerns.
In 2009, the Commonwealth Observer mission noted the lack of a level playing field during the campaign, citing the use of state resources and failure by state-owned media to provide balanced coverage or reasonable access to all parties.
Similar observations were highlighted in the 2004 and 1999 elections.
But MEC said it is not mandated to control the use of state resources.
“The observations that have been raised on abuse of state resources during the campaign period cannot be solved by MEC alone but a constellation of all stakeholders,” said MEC spokesperson Sangwani Mwafulirwa.
He said the commission has produced a media code of conduct that stipulates the role of the media during elections.
Minister of Information Moses Kunkuyu said the issue of abuse of public resources for political purposes is a complex one, arguing that government and the party in power cannot be separated.
“We have a political government in place and we cannot separate the two. It is all about our system. If people want, let’s abolish the system,” he said.
On the abuse of public broadcasting services, Kunkuyu said a meeting with all political parties was conducted recently in Mangochi where a consensus was reached on how public broadcasters should conduct themselves during elections.
“All parties seem to be satisfied with what we have put in place. But we cannot avoid covering of government function at the mean time and during the campaign period. Government functions will be given priority but if the opposition want to use the public broadcaster service they will be able to do that,” he said.
Malawi Electoral Support Network (Mesn) board member MacBain Mkandawire said the 2014 tripartite elections would only be free and fair if the issues raised by observer missions are dealt with.
“While MEC is making efforts, there are a number of issues affecting it. That is the reason Mesn is supporting MEC to ensure that it runs credible elections.
“Currently, media houses have signed MEC media code of conduct for elections. Where Mesn feels that the level playing field is compromised, an advocacy campaign to level the playing field will be launched,” said Mkandawire.