The beauty—or it is mystery?—with worldly wisdom is that it cannot be ascribed to a particular status of a person. Actually, wisdom comes from unlikely sources such as Ras Chikomeni Chirwa. But his reaction to his failed bid to file nomination papers for the State presidency begs the question on whether one is poor enough to vote but too poor to aspire for State House. PETER KANJERE ignites more debate in this Friday Shaker.
As early as 7:00am on Wednesday, the social media was awash with pictures of Ras Chikomeni Chirwa in Blantyre on his way to Chichiri International Conference Centre, commonly called Comesa Hall, to present his nomination papers, amid doubts on whether he could meet the pre-conditions of K2 million nomination fees and 100,000 signatories.
And boy! Chirwa availed himself at the jam-packed centre a good hour before schedule. He came before Malawi Electoral Commission (Mec) commissioners reported for duty.
He was, perhaps, sending a message that aspiring State presidents must respect time. Running a country is seriousness business, former Malawi leader Bakili Muluzi once observed.
Chirwa, accompanied by his running mate-designate, Catherine Lyness Kayange, responded to the mention of his name with a swing of his head and, with it, his shoulder-length dreadlocks.
He barely stared at the running mate who is believed to be his mother; a woman she described as a retired civil servant but one who is not “tired.”
And all seemed well when Mec Chief Commissioner, Sam Alfandika, presided over the occasion, only for the moment that mattered the most—that of scrutinising Chirwa’s candidacy to dampen the, otherwise, lively mood in the hall.
Then Mec Chairperson, Jane Ansah, delivered the news that the gathering disliked to hear but one they needed to hear.
The crowd-puller had failed to meet two pre-conditions, Ansah announced.
“Having scrutinised your[Chirwa’s] papers, we found that there are two conditions that have not been fulfilled; that is, you have not made the payment, as provided for in Section 45 (1), which reads: “At the same time as the nomination paper is lodged, there shall be deposited with the returning officer by or on behalf of the person nominated, such sum as may be determined by the commission which shall not be refundable,” So, the first thing that our distinguished candidate has not complied with is that, at the time you are submitting your paper, you have not paid your nomination fee,” said Ansah to chants of “tisonkha, tisonkha” (we will contribute) from the crowd.
And if people thought Chirwa was all about a publicity stunt. His response during an interview with Times proved otherwise.
He is poor. He admitted this fact without hesitation, let alone hint of regrets. Chirwa knows his rights. He reads the Constitution of the land.
“It is very sad. I just came to exercise my constitutional right to contest in the elections but they say there are rules. This is my right and why should I pay to enjoy my right? They are talking about the Parliamentary and Presidential Elections Act while I am talking about the Constitution of the land, which is superior,” Chirwa said.
He must have read section 51 of the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi, which explains eligibility for presidential candidates.
It reads: “Notwithstanding any provision of this Constitution to the contrary, a person shall only be qualified for nomination for election as President or First Vice- President or for appointment as First Vice-President or Second Vice-President if that person—(a) is a citizen of Malawi by birth or descent; and (b) has attained the age of thirty-five years.”
He defended his failure to source enough signatories, arguing that he is an independent candidate and that it is difficult to establish structures in the manner a party would.
“I do not have structures like a political party. I am an independent candidate and I have asked for an extension. I also think we need to have an independents’ [candidates] Act. Independent candidates cannot be governed by a Political Parties Act,” he said.
But first things first. Elections in Malawi are government by the Constitution; the Parliamentary and Presidential Elections Act, the Local Government Elections Act, the Electoral Commission Act and the Political Parties Act.
All these pieces of legislation stipulate criteria for political rights of individuals, candidature and voter eligibility.
If Chirwa felt that the requirement that he should collect at least 100,000 signature from eligible voters was prohibitive, he would, perhaps be disappointed learning that Malawi Law Commission proposed increasing the number of the signatores because the current one “is rather low and contributes to the increasing number of candidates and scales up the cost of the elections”.
Mec spokesperson, Sangwani Mwafulirwa, Thursday sought to set matters straight that they apply provis ions of the Parliamentary and Presidential Elections Act and not the recently passed Political Parties Act, as Chirwa suggested.
“Every candidate— whether independent or party-sponsored—is supposed to oblige and fulfil the requirements and eligibility criteria. Requirement for nomination fees should not be equated to the sale of democracy. Apart from being a legal requirement, it is also an established international standard for candidates to pay nomination fees,” Mwafulirwa said.
Malawi Electoral Support Network Chairperson, Steve Duwa, in his personal capacity, said the problem is not with the Act which Mec used but Malawians’ usual problem of being reactive to issues.
“Malawians wait for a problem and complain. If we had addressed the issue, it could have been put forward to the Malawi Law Commission (MLC). The Electoral Commission is applying the law. While we enjoy human rights, it also goes with responsibility.
“In the case of the fees, there was a lot of debate. However, there must be reason this fee was put; so, this issue must be taken in context. When one is aspiring for a position, it calls for two things: level of seriousness and commitment. How does one demonstrate commitment and seriousness? Maybe the question is: Do they have to pay that much?” Duwa said.
Mwafulirwa, in a separate interview, seemed to agree with Duwa, saying the fee “is one way for a candidate to demonstrate commitment to stand in an election. The other one is requirement for signatures”.
University of Malawi’s Chancellor College political scientist, Ernest Thindwa, Thursday said Chirwa’s case reveals existential tension between democracy and order.
“While the two often complement each other, they sometimes cross each other’s path. Democracy should not be an exclusive preserve of the elites. It should be inclusive, permitting participation of all people regardless of their economic class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion or political persuasion.
“It is the very reason Mec is faulted for raising the nomination fee for the presidential race to K2 million. Raising the fee is, without doubt, discriminatory. It limits participation in the presidential race to a particular class that can afford the fee. At the same time, there is need for order. Lowering the nomination fee to allow any interested citizen to participate in the presidential race may create disorder as the presidential race may attract unprecedented numbers which may degenerate into a national electoral nightmare,” Thindwa said.
After the 2014 Tripartite Elections, the Malawi Law Commission, in respect of its mandate stipulated in Section 132 of the Republic of Malawi, championed the review of the previous elections through a National Task force on Electoral Reforms.
The commission received post-electoral reviews from stakeholders such as Mesn, National Initiative for Civic Education and Public Affairs Committee.
In December 2017, Parliament rejected two of the six Electoral Reforms (Amendment) Bills which MLC recommended.
The proposal included a Referendum Bill. There was also a suggestion to change the electoral system from the current simple majority to 50+1.
However, it appears that none of the electoral stakeholders saw the need for scrutiny on what becomes of independent presidential aspirants who are too poor to afford the nomination fee and garner enough signatories.
The MLC also recommended Elections Management Fund so as to make Mec financially independent.
It further proposed a change in how a Mec chairperson is appointed and indeed, selection of commissioners. Currently, is the Executive that appoints such people; bringing some conflict of interest.
President Peter Mutharika, who will present his nomination papers to Mec today as governing Democratic Progressive Party torch bearer, appointed Ansah as Mec boss on recommendation of the Judicial Service Commission.
Mutharika is, in Ansah’s eyes, not just another presidential aspirant and State President, but her boss. Ultimately.
As the way forward, Thindwa called for “a balancing act to achieve acceptable levels of democracy and order”.
“Certainly, there is no formula for an appropriate balancing position but, through inclusive national dialogue, we should be able to find a widely accepted position,” he said.
Ansah has, in respect of the laws of the game, granted Chirwa until today to meet the pre-conditions.
But even if Chirwa does not meet the pre-conditions, he has still achieved his objective.
Not that of gracing newspaper pages and broadcasters’ prime time, but putting his message across that when it comes to elections, voting is open to all but leadership is for the halves.
Those who vie for the presidency must also translate their commitment in cash. Democracy is not for free. It comes at a cost.