Saturday, 16 April 2011

The long shadow of government interference in electoral processes

After pleas and calls by all and sundry and many demands in print and broadcast media, Malawi's Electoral Commission (MEC) is finally back in commission. The MEC was closed when the president suspended the board and staff of the organisation over the alleged disappearance of MK1.4 billion. This should mean that Malawi can finally get on with holding long-delayed local government elections.

Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Suspending the electoral commission was, according to some law experts, an illegal act by the president but no legal body forced him to go back on his actions. So there is no guarantee that he won't simply do it again. Which leaves the electoral commission working under constant implicit threat. There are also concerns that the voters role may have been tampered with during the months and months the MEC was closed.

Whether the accusations are true and whether President Bingu wa Mutharika is likely to take similar actions again, the net result is that political parties, civil society groups and voters have lost faith in the body. Trust in the independence of the body running elections is key to getting people to turn out to vote and making it possible for them to vote freely. The trouble with any government interference in an electoral system or body is that, no matter how well-meaning it may seem at the time (in this case an effort to deal with corruption), this interference has a long-term impact on the trust people have in an electoral body - trust that is very difficult to rebuild - and is likely to cast doubt on the fairness of any elections they run.

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