Shoddy polls can be costly

Honourable Folks, the one thing Kenya is good at in Africa is the innovative use of information technology. The Cheetahs of this East African country mesmerised the world by “inventing” a money transferring system using the mobile phone which transformed lives of un-banked rural folks.

I hear Kenya has a mini ‘Silicon Valley’ where those who are computer-savvy go to let their creative genius fly like an eagle.

Yet, when the same Kenya decided to go high tech on its 2012 elections, system failure nearly rocked the tallying process and normalcy only reigned when the electoral body reverted to the manual system which is inherently slower and more prone to manipulation.

Hearts went pit-a-pat as vote tallying went into a chameleon-pace mode with so many ballots declared null and void. Some concerned Kenyans said the 2007 post-election bloodbath in their country followed a delay in declaring election results. 

 In Africa, elections can be so divisive if not well handled. People of the same nation can forget they belong together and butcher one another like wild game for sheer political expediency.

One of the strongest contenders in the presidential elections in Kenya, Uhuru Kenyetta, also has a case awaiting him at the International Criminal Court (ICC) allegedly for inciting the 2007 violence.  A year later, Zimbabwe, too, had its share of post-election violence in which people were maimed or killed simply for voting their conscience.

Carnage also ensued in Cote d’Ivoire when President Laurent Gbagbo disputed the results of the elections which portrayed him as the loser. Today, Gbagbo is facing the long arm of the law at The Hague.

In Malawi, we take pride in calling ourselves peace-loving yet the only time election results were accepted by the losing side with dignity was in 1994 when Kamuzu Banda conceded defeat and congratulated the winner, Bakili Muluzi, way before he was officially declared as such.

Subsequent elections ended up in running battles on the streets or in court. When Muluzi won again in 1999, there was ethnic tension in some parts of the country. The victory of UDF’s Bingu wa Mutharika in 2004 triggered street battles between the police and supporters of the Mgwirizano Coalition, which led to the tragic death of a little girl, Epiphania Bonjesi, believed to have been hit by a stray bullet.

Our propensity for violence was displayed on July 19 2011 when machete-wielding youths, using well-marked DPP vehicles, patrolled the streets in broad-day light, baying for the blood of those who opposed Mutharika’s dictatorial tendencies. Way back in the 1990s, the camera also captured a similar scenario in Ndirande.

And on July 20, 2011, the police gunned down 20 people when disgruntled citizens exercised their constitutional right to demonstrate. That was the day when peace-loving Malawi lost its innocence.

As we head towards the 2014 tripartite elections, there is, therefore, the need to remember that botched elections caused bloodbath in Kenya, Zimbabwe and Cote d’Ivoire. It can also happen here.

To avert post-election conflicts, the losers ought to be convinced that victory wasn’t stolen away from them.  That requires thoroughness in executing the electoral process from the beginning to the end.

But where is thoroughness when the polls—the first ever tripartite elections in Malawi—are slated for May 20, 2014, which is only 14 months away, yet not even the electoral calendar is out?

There was no provision for the polls in the 2012/13 budget. If the Malawi Electoral Commission will have to wait until the 2013/14 budget is passed, it will mean cramming all the processes within a period of 10 months. Just how realistic will that be?

 Observers’ reports on the 2009 general elections indicated that the voter roll was a mess despite the time and effort to use more sophisticated equipment for the registration process. This time around, should anything go wrong, there just might be no time at all to clear up the mess.

Probably, the most worrying is civic and voter education. The electorate will be required to vote three times in one day—for the President, the MP and the councillor. This may not be a problem per se but the problem is to get to know the right three candidates to vote for among those that will be there on each ballot paper.

If, say, a voter has to choose from five candidates for the presidential election, six for the parliamentary election and 10 for the local government election, it means the voter has to at least have enough knowledge about all these 21 candidates—who they are, what they stand for and what they promise to do should they be elected.

In a country where the majority of the electorate are rural-based, illiterate or semi-literate, chances are people will just be voting for friends or relatives if they do not have adequate information with which to make informed choices. That is as good as disenfranchising them.

Again, if voter education is rushed through, resulting in many null and void votes, that will also be denying people their right to vote. At the pace we are going, what’s there to show for our planning for success?

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