Africa, Headlines

POLITICS-MALAWI: Voter Registration Dogged by Poor Planning and Apathy

By Frank Phiri

BLANTYRE, Jan 22 2004 (IPS) - With just under four months remaining before Malawi’s general elections, local activists and international observers have expressed concern at the lack-lustre response to voter registration efforts. The registration exercise has also prompted opposition parties to cry foul.

Although the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) had scheduled the 14-day registration process to end on Jan. 18, it has now been extended until Jan. 25.

However, a 12-member team from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Parliamentary Forum has recommended that registration should remain open for longer.

At present, there are 5.2 million registered voters in Malawi. Chief Elections Officer George Chimwaza told IPS that estimates of first-time and unregistered voters ranged from 300,000 to 560,000.

The SADC team made its recommendation after visiting 66 registration centres in 19 of Malawi’s 28 districts.

In a statement issued in the commercial centre, Blantyre, the team noted “There’s consensus among virtually all stakeholders that the process has so far been affected by low voter turnout, largely attributed to inadequate civic and voter education as well as timing of the exercise.”

“As a matter of urgency, the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) should put in place effective mechanisms ensuring that the required registration materials are not only made available in the required quantities but also at all relevant times,” it went on to say.

But, the MEC has adopted a cautious stance on further extensions for registration. “We’re considering their (SADC Parliamentary Forum’s) recommendations, but have not come up with a final decision,” said Chimwaza.

“It will all depend on the availability of materials. In addition, we also want to measure the impact of the current extension.”

Concerns about voter registration have also been raised by various civil society organisations which have been accredited by the MEC to conduct voter education programmes for the May 18 poll.

These groups include the Blantyre-based Justice and Peace Commission (JPC), which is affiliated to the Episcopal church in Malawi. The JPC deployed observers in seven southern districts to monitor the registration process, and recently issued a report on its findings.

This document cites a shortage of administrative materials such as batteries and film, daily registration account forms, amendment cards and security envelopes as one of the main problems to bedevil registration.

“The MEC should not be defensive in responding to these concerns, but rather provide the required materials to restore people’s confidence and trust,” said Aloysius Nthenda, Projects Co-ordinator for JPC.

When registration opened on Jan. 5, President Bakili Muluzi attempted to set the tone for the exercise by registering in his remote village of Kapoloma, about 75 kilometres north of Blantyre.

But, despite a media campaign that featured banners saying “No registration, No vote”, most registration centres remained empty.

Some voters have blamed the opposition’s delay in forming an alliance to fight the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) for their reluctance to register.

“If they don’t come up with a candidate to wrestle the UDF/Aford candidate, I am not going to register, because individual opposition parties cannot defeat UDF,” said Flora Jana, a secretary working in Limbe – a town near Blantyre.

About eight opposition parties are due to sign a memorandum of understanding on Friday (Jan. 23) in Blantyre, to set out guidelines for electing a joint presidential candidate. The opposition alliance will reportedly call itself “Mgwirizano”, which means unity.

Those voters who have summoned up the enthusiasm to register often fell victim to frustration.

“I don’t think that the Electoral Commission was prepared for this exercise. I and my family are reluctant to register because we were turned back last week,” said Gides Chimombo, a small-scale businessman in Mbayani, a squatter settlement in Blantyre.

Opposition parties and non-governmental organisations fear that the administrative mishaps could be manipulated to skew the outcome of the May poll.

Last week, a ruling party official was caught in the capital, Lilongwe, with stolen registration materials. The party instantly fired him.

During the past few days, police have also arrested 16 people – allegedly UDF officials – for registering twice. The suspects accused another party official of planning the crime, a charge that the UDF vehemently denied.

“What difference would 16 votes make?” Mary Kaphwereza Banda, UDF Deputy Publicity Secretary, sharply retorted when questioned about the incident.

The May election will cost government and donors 15.8 million dollars. To date, the United Nations Development Program has pledged about five million dollars for the poll, while government will foot the rest of the bill.


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