MALAWI: Civil society attacks decision to close parliament

Monday, October 1, 2007

President Bingu wa Mutharika has earned the ire of civil society for not keeping his end of the bargain to discuss floor crossing, a tactic that has strengthened his political arm, now that parliament has approved the national budget.

Mutharika's decision to prorogue parliament soon after the budget was passed was seen as an attempt to stem any move by the opposition, who hold the majority of seats in the193-seat house, to force the Speaker to table the issue of floor crossing.

The budget vote was suspended on 24 July after opposition parties - the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) - refused to debate the budget until a standoff over the defection of their members to Mutharika's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), had been resolved. The DPP had welcomed 60 defectors, bringing the ruling party's tally of members in parliament to 80.

Opposition parties cited Section 65 of the Constitution, which bars legislators from switching allegiance from their sponsoring parties, and in June Malawi's Supreme Court granted powers to the Speaker of Parliament to expel defecting lawmakers, a decision that would slash the DPP's seats.

The Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), a nongovernmental organisation (NGO), said the battle over the controversial section had dragged on because both government and opposition leaders had been "dishonest".

"The truth of the matter is that politicians are struggling for power," said Undule Mwakasungura, executive director of the CHRR. "Government is afraid of collapsing, while the opposition wants to wrest power and both are manipulating the poor masses to make their ends meet."

The CHRR, among other NGOs who participated in the 14-day pro-budget vigil outside parliament in the capital, Lilongwe, said the deliberate distortion of Section 65 could only worsen the political situation in the country, and risked bringing "potentially disastrous consequences".

Mutharika went on television to defend his decision to suspend deliberations, arguing that the parliamentarians were wasting taxpayers' money by debating issues that had no economic bearing on poor Malawians.

In a national address on the state-controlled Malawi Broadcasting Corporation in the week the budget was passed, Mutharika alleged that parliament had blown US$2.2 million on allowances and salaries, "refusing to discuss government bills for development, but insisted on discussing Section 65".

UDF publicity secretary Sam Mpasu said Section 65 was about "constitutionalism. We do not have any grudges against Mutharika but would want to see that the rule of law was upheld."

Justin Dzonzi, chair of the Human Rights Consultative Committee, a grouping of local human rights organisations, accused the president of breaching the trust that civil society had built between government and the opposition, who have been at loggerheads for many months.

Last week, the Public Affairs Committee, a grouping of faith-based organisations that have played a crucial role in the fight against one-party rule in Malawi in the early 1990s, also asked Mutharika to reconsider his stand and allow parliamentarians to discuss the contentious issue of defecting MPs.

In a significant move Dorothy Ngoma, chair of the Malawi Human Rights Commission, a statutory body, warned of political instability if political leaders insisted on verbal tirades. "It is only dialogue that can help in the implementation of the Section; using hate campaigns and abusive language will only worsen matters."

Source: IRIN
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