On March 30 the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) will conduct by-elections in seven constituencies and two wards following the death of incumbents and nullification of parliamentary election results by the courts.
Thus, voters in Zomba Changalume, Karonga North West, Ntchisi North and Lilongwe Nsinja South constituencies and those in Riviridzi and Chitakale Wards will elect new Members of Parliament (MPs) and Councillors following the deaths of their representatives after the May 2019 Tripartite Elections.
In Nsanje Central, Nsanje North and Chikwawa East constituencies voters are back to square one because the High Court nullified victories of former Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) MPs Francis Kasaila and Esther Mcheka-Chilenje as well as ex-United Democratic Front (UDF) lawmaker Sam Khumbanyiwa, respectively, over widespread irregularities.
However, it is the culture of migration politics shown by some candidates ahead of the by-elections that has sparked debate on whether or not politicians should switch constituencies anyhow to modify their relevance when their popularity diminishes in constituencies where they won or lost in earlier elections.
Zomba Changalume has this scenario with at least two nomadic candidates that previously ran for Parliament elsewhere now vying for this seat.
One of the candidates, Lawrence Bisika, of People’s Party (PP) contested for MP in this constituency in 2004 before switching to Zomba Central in 2009. Now he is back to Zomba Changalume seeking a ticket to the National Assembly.
But just like all clever politicians have claimed before him, Bisika attributes his nomadic movements to pressure from his supporters.
Explains Bisika: “I have been motivated by my people’s requests to come and contest here. I once contested in Zomba Central constituency because that’s where I do my business but I come from Zomba Changalume, that’s my home.
“It’s not my first time contesting here but this time around I am confident I will succeed since I know what my people want.”
Another politician who has migrated to this constituency is prominent businessman Mahomed Hanif Osman—popularly known as O.G. Issah—who served as MP for Chiradzulu Central from 2014 to 2019.
Interestingly, Osman — who is standing on an independent ticket — is also on record as having claimed that constituents in Zomba Changalume requested him to contest in the area following the death of former PP lawmaker John Chikalimba.
Nevertheless, MEC Director of Media and Public Relations Sangwani Mwafulirwa says there is no prohibition for candidates to switch between constituencies or wards.
He says: “There is no geographical restriction within the eligibility criteria. A person is free to contest in any constituency or ward even if they don’t stay or conduct business in that area or ward.
“But Should it happen that one is a Ward Councillor in an area and wants to contest as MP in another during a by-election, he or she will be expected to first resign as a councillor before presenting nomination papers and vice-versa,” Mwafulirwa adds.
But such debates on runaway MPs who decide to switch constituencies mainly because they failed to satisfy the electorate should be part of a wider political discourse that Malawians must engage to foster the country’s representative democracy.
Political analyst George Phiri thinks there is great need for civic education on what electoral laws say about contesting anywhere that a person chooses.
“Although that is contained in the Parliamentary and Presidential Elections Act (PPEA), there is need for MEC and Ministry of Civic Education and National Unity to clarify that aspect not only to the electorates but also the candidates because some politicians believe they [own] certain constituencies because they come from that area,” Phiri argues.
He adds that some people can take advantage of that right by moving with their failure to another constituency and after convincing the electorates there, that five years will be wasted years for the constituency and People will fail to recall that failed candidate since Section 64 (recall provision) was removed from the Constitution.
“There is a need to review that Act as not many people know and understand that clause, “he adds.
But constitutional expert Edge Kanyongolo thinks the right to contest anywhere does not affect a serving parliamentarian’s performance.
He says: “Contesting in different constituencies is allowed by the law. Therefore, people are entitled to do it. Whether it is wise, prudent, good or bad, that is a judgment for the voters to make and the voters will definitely show whether they approve of this or not.”
MCP’s campaign director Moses Kunkuyu also acted in a similar fashion. In 2009, he won as Blantyre City South MP for DPP but failed to return to Parliament in 2014 after contesting in Dedza South on a PP ticket.
For Kunkuyu, who could also not make it to Parliament in 2019, the motivation was to serve Malawians regardless of where they are.
“The sole purpose is to serve and represent a certain section of Malawians so long as there is genuine motivation to serve,” Kunkuyu justifies.
Even Mzimba West legislator Billy Kaunda shares the claim advanced by his political colleagues.
“After completing my term in Blantyre City South East, I decided not to contest again. But when my people from Mzimba heard I am not contesting, they approached me to contest for the Mzimba West seat,” he says.
On her part, former first lady Callista Mutharika, says her decision to contest at Lilongwe City West after serving as parliamentarian for Zomba Likangala constituency was simply because she relocated to Lilongwe.
Malawi Electoral Support Network (MESN)’s mission is to strengthen genuine democratic electoral process and advocate for electoral reforms when there is need.
MESN Vice Chairperson, Emma Kaliya feels the switching of constituencies by the candidates is ok since they have the right to contest anywhere in the country.
“It is a democratic right and nobody should stop them from widening their opportunities as the electoral laws provides for that,” she explains.
Now, as Malawians await the next by-elections this month, it is clear from experts that contesting in an election is a democratic right and nobody should obstruct anyone from widening their opportunities as the electoral laws provide for that and all candidates have the right to contest anywhere in the country.
Back to the elections this month end, indications are all clear that it will be another tightly contested vote between major parties MCP, DPP, UDF, UTM Party, PP and some independent candidates especially in the Lower Shire, Zomba and the northern.