Mutharika sheds off ‘meekness’

19.03.2020

So, President Peter Mutharika has been wielding his power. It all began with his words at the inaugural rally for his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) electoral bedfellow, the United Democratic Front (UDF) where he put it outright that being meek is not being foolish.

He was referring to the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) leader Timothy Mtambo and other activists who were planning a March 25 State House lockdown. Within hours, police acted and nicked the activists.

Soon after the Supreme Court threw out a Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) application for a stay order against the Constitutional Court ruling that nullified the May 21 2019 polls, Mutharika engaged another gear. He fired his Cabinet and a committee on coronavirus that grossly comprised Cabinet ministers.

And, to show further that he is not a park where one would just walk about, Mutharika went a step further when he withheld his assenting of the Electoral Bills, which would have made smooth the way to fresh elections following the ConCourt ruling.

The President, through his Press Secretary Mgeme Kalilani, sent back to Parliament several amendments to the Electoral Commission Act and the Parliamentary and Presidential Elections Act (PPEA). Mutharika deemed the amendments unconstitutional.

In another case, Mutharika also rejected the Public Appointments Committee (PAC) recommendation to him to fire the MEC commissioners, saying it is the same commissioners who run the presidential elections that also conducted the parliamentary elections so it would make little sense to accept the parliamentary polls and reject the presidential election. He argued further the commissioners were not given the chance to avail themselves with their lawyers before the committee.

Never before has the separation of powers come under the test in Malawi. It appears we are running in cycles, as each branch of the government exercises its power to be independent of the other. At the end of the day, Malawians are still on tenterhooks as to whether this debacle, that was primarily seen as a battle between those who won and those who lost the polls will ever end. That the tie would not be so easy to break is now sinking in.

Constitutionally, where the President withholds his assent to a bill, they cannot be debated in Parliament before the expiry of 21 days. Then, if Parliament debates and a majority of the House vote for the bills to be made into law and the President would only append his signature. This is a process that would take about 70 days, which brings the fear that that would not tally with the 150 days within which the ConCourt ruled that fresh polls be conducted.

It may not be far from the truth that getting a two thirds majority of parliamentarians to support the transformation of the bills into law is somehow a tall order, given that the law makers are known for acting to serve personal interests first. But, if we go by that line of thinking, shall we say the MPs can be lured to act en masse, with the clause in the amendments that proposes that the next parliamentary election be held in 2025, not 2024 which gives ‘extends’ their tenure by a year?

While all this is happening, the Supreme Court is set to start hearing of the appeal case on April 15 2020. The court has so many options to ascertain whether the ConCourt erred or not. I feel there is so much at stake at the Supreme Court and Malawians can as well wait for the appeal case to see the future, if any, of fresh elections being held. Due to legal implications, we can just wait for that ruling than speculate.

One thing for certain is that the court will either uphold the ConCourt ruling or quash it outright. If the court decides to uphold the ruling, what would it rule on the presidency’s tenure even where the constitutional term ended about ten months ago? Shall it still hold true that the fate of the commissioners and amendments to electoral laws be referred to Parliament? Ours are eyes and ears.

Mutharika’s demonstration of power was also evident when he fired Malawi Defence Force (MDF) commander general Vincent Nundwe and his deputy General Clement Namangale. His grip went further even in the DPP, where he fired regional governors for the Centre and North. And there was a shake-up in the police.

Nundwe has been called in some circles as the ‘people’s general’. Primarily, this is so because during the marathon demonstrations, the army was seen to be protecting the civilians where the police shied away. Where the police would fuel tension with teargas in the name of restoring peace and calm, law and order, the army, under Nundwe, would be there for the people and offer protection.

It is Mutharika’s pleasure to hire and fire as he likes it. One clear thing, nonetheless, is that he is now doing it in an interim, ay acting, capacity and only because he wants to consolidate his candidacy if at all we are going to vote again.

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