By Serah Makondetsa:
Although the country enacted the 2018 Political Parties law to regulate political parties and sanitise the political landscape, the legislation has failed to outlaw handouts distribution by political groupings to tempt voters.
Among others, the 2018 Political Parties Act was put in place to deter political parties from giving handouts to people as a way of enticing them for their vote.
However, failure by the act to practically define what a handout is compared to a campaign material, which the act permits parties to give out, has caused confusion among political parties.
Section 2 of the act defines a handout as private goods, cash and gifts, among others, given to a person for enticement.
“Handouts means transaction whereby political parties, bodies, candidates or any other person distribute private goods, cash, gifts and other items to a person as an enticement to vote the political party or the candidate that shall not include matters or transactions specified in the schedule,” reads part of the act.
Meanwhile, the act defines a campaign material as items that parties and candidates use to spread messages about them to the voters.
“Campaign material means a political party’s or candidate’s manifesto, advertisement, billboard, posters, T-shirts, clothes or other materials depicting colours regarding symbols and other designs of a political party or pictorial images of a candidate and includes materials that may be published as campaign materials.
“And these include a manifesto, advertisement, billboard, poster, booklet, pamphlet, leaflet, magazine, newspaper, T-shirt, clothes or other materials depicting a colour, symbol, picture or other design for a political party or a candidate,” it reads.
However, Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Samuel Tembenu said the contrast between the two is clear in their definitions.
He said political parties and candidates will not get away with breaking the law.
“The law creates the Office of Registrar of Political Parties who is charged with responsibility of administering the Act,” he said.
One of the advocates of the act, Centre for Multiparty Democracy Executive Director Kizito Tenthani, said while the distinction between a handout and a campaign material is clear, there are exceptions that can be made.
“When you are reading the law, they are giving examples and, in this case, campaign materials are things like posters, T-shirts and cloth wrappers, so they are rated in that category and, if you go beyond that and start branding bicycles, I think we are going overboard.
“When you give an example of the bicycles, parties can say they want to give it to their district governors for transport, so that I would think may be exempted if it is given to people for a specific function.
“If people, let’s say, brand a packet of sugar, that is a handout because it will be consumed privately but things like posters and clothes will be worn for publicity of a particular party,” he said.
Some political parties have come out in the open to say, though the act was assented to by President Peter Mutharika, there is a lot that needs to be done to clear some of the mist surrounding it.
Malawi Congress Party secretary general Eisenhower Mkaka said, while the definition of the two is clear as stipulated by the act, other political parties will twist the law knowingly for their own benefit.
“You see, political parties are trying to be clever where in some instances they are branding a bicycle and make it appear like a campaign material but, then, that will yield personal benefit because it will be an individual that will be using that and the aim is to induce someone to vote in their favour.
“The courts will have to help in interpreting because that is their job in any case but I think the act has tried to be clear as possible on the two,” he said.
UTM spokesperson Joseph Chidanti Malunga said there is a lot of confusion in as far as this law is concerned.
“We passed the law when we were a few months away from the elections and, as we speak now, we think there is a lot that we need to do to define a handout because what it is says now is that when you brand something, it is not a handout but when you give out food, it is a handout but what if one brands food, does it change to be a campaign material?
“What if someone brands a car and says people should be use it for driving lessons, is that not a handout? Nobody knows what qualifies to be a handout and what is not. There is confusion right now,” he said.
Democratic Progressive Party spokesperson Nicholas Dausi said, as far his party is concerned, it will follow the law as stated in the act.
“It is a law and we will follow as it states,” he said.
People’s Party (PP) spokesperson Ackson Kalaile Banda said PP will follow the rules and guidelines stipulated in the act though it is unclear in some areas.
“We have read the Political Parties Act and what it says about the handouts but there are certain things that can be argued. However, as a party, we are going to follow what the law says because it is a law,” he said.
University of Malawi’s Chancellor College-based political analyst Ernest Thindwa said implementing the law will be difficult arguing the players to implement it are interested parties.
“Personally, I don’t think that the act will be active because the key actors are either not interested or do not have what you would call the political capacity to implement. The actors such as political parties, in my view, are not interested to have the act, to them, campaign is handouts; therefore, it will be difficult, in my view, to enforce that,” he said.
The Political Parties Act, which was passed in 2017 and assented to by Mutharika last year, among other things, obliges political parties to disclose their sources of income.