It is now official. United Democratic Front (UDF) has no voice and identity in Parliament as it has been booted out of the Business Committee following the party’s decision to move to government benches in the National Assembly.
The committee made the decision last Thursday following a complaint from Dedza South West Member of Parliament (MP) Clement Mlombwa (Malawi Congress Party-MCP) on May 6 that the status of UDF in Parliament was not clear.
In his communication on the decision, Speaker of Parliament Richard Msowoya said: “I wish to inform the House that after careful consideration of Standing Order 155, the Business Committee resolved that UDF cannot have representation in the Business Committee.”
The Business Committee comprises the Speaker, the Leader of the House, leader of Opposition, Government Chief Whip, leaders of political parties not in government, opposition party whips and deputy speakers as ex-officio members.
The Business Committee proposes the programme for a Parliament meeting and determines the order of business for each day, days and amount of time allocated for debate in the assembly, according to Standing Order 156 (1).
A source within the committee said former UDF chief whip Lillian Patel’s arguments that UDF had not joined Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and remained an opposition party in Parliament was shot down by other members.
Said the source: “When the decision was made, the honourable [Patel] stormed out of the meetings banging her handbag all over. But the decision was final.”
Eleven of UDF’s 14 MPs moved to government benches in Parliament to strengthen its working relationship with DPP, a decision party spokesperson Ken Ndanga described as in the interest of nation building.
Hitherto leader of UDF in Parliament Lucius Banda, who is also Balaka North MP, stays put in the opposition benches while Minister of Home Affairs and Internal Security Atupele Muluzi and Second Deputy Speaker of Parliament Clement Chiwaya, by virtue of their positions, were not affected by the move.
In light of UDF’s move and the subsequent decision of the Business Committee, the party has lost the opportunity to determine the number of MPs to any committee of the House.
UDF was one of three opposition parties which, by virtue of having more than 10 MPs in the House, had representation in the decision-making process of House meetings.
Reacting to the development, Banda said he had said enough on the matter, but observed that it had become clear that the party did not take note of the consequences of the move to join the government side.
Patel and her former deputy, Ernest Yahaya, were not in the House during the afternoon session of Parliament yesterday.
UDF’s decision to move to government benches has drawn mixed reactions from both legal, social and political analysts.
For example, constitutional law expert Edge Kanyongolo, an associate professor of law at the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College, backed the UDF MPs, arguing Section 65 of the Constitution that regulates crossing of the floor, cannot whip them.
On the other hand, lawyer Justin Dzonzi of Justice Link observed that the situation of UDF MPs was a case where Section 65 should apply because of the divisions among the MPs where some have moved and their leader remained on opposition benches.
Dzonzi’s position was also backed by South Africa-based legal scholar Danwood Chirwa who urged the Speaker to declare vacant seats of UDF MPs who relocated to the government benches.
The Public Affairs Committeee (PAC) also appealed to the Speaker to declare vacant seats of UDF MPs while the Malawi Law Society provided a legal opinion that said UDF MPs had not joined DPP; hence, did not cross the floor.
Last week, human rights activist Billy Mayaya petitioned the Speaker to declare vacant seats of the affected UDF MPs.
The Speaker is on record as having said his hands were tied unless his office was moved.
UDF now has one MP in opposition while 11 of them are now backbenchers in the government.