Constituency demarcation criteria and some challenges

The Malawi Electoral Commission is mandated, under Section 76 (2) of the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi, to:

 

[a]     determine constituency boundaries impartially on the basis of ensuring that constituencies contain approximately equal numbers of voters eligible to register, subject only to considerations:

          [i]       population density

          [ii]      ease of communication and

          [iii]     geographical features and administrative boundaries.

 

[b]     review existing constituency boundaries at intervals of not more than five years and alter them in accordance with the principles laid down in subsection 2(a) above.

 

The last demarcation exercise was conducted in 1998 where it considered only constituencies which were glaringly large. The understanding was that a full demarcation exercise would be conducted after the 1999 elections.  Today, 16 years later, the exercise is yet to be undertaken.

 

Several issues contributed to this delay:

  • The appointment of new Commissioners is normally done close to the election, consequently making it difficult or impossible for the new Commission to undertake demarcation exercise.
  • Support to the Commission for the exercise has not been forthcoming. Demarcation is a costly exercise as many stakeholders have to be involve to ensure its credibility and legitimacy.

 

With passage of time the situation shows glaring differences in population size of constituencies. This is against the constitutional provision constituencies should be equipopulous. For example the largest constituency at the moment, in terms of number of Registered Voters, is Lilongwe City Central with 126,115 while the smallest is Likoma Islands (Chizumulu inclusive) with 6,933.  On average, with 193 constituencies, each constituency should have 38,770 voters. There is no district in the country where constituencies are equipopulous.

 

The Commission has planned for a thorough demarcation exercise there are some challenges that can be faced in the process to fulfill the provision of the criteria set by the constitution.

 

For example, the law provides the three variables mentioned above but does not clarify on the weights to be assigned to each of the variable. There is need for a subsidiary legislation to facilitate the demarcation process.

 

Another challenge is on administrative boundaries. There are some constituencies whose boundaries have crossed local authority boundaries and this need to be sanitised.

 

In Malawi, population and housing census takes place after every 10 years in the year ending with 8.  This is just one year to the general election.This pauses a challenge, to the demarcation body in that it is forced to conduct the exercise after the elections but using data that is not current. In this year’s demarcation, the Commission has to use the 2008 population figures because the next census will be just a year to the election in 2018.

 

Also the constitutional provision that MEC should review constituency boundaries at a period of not more than 5 years is problematic.  The provision assumes that there are mechanisms of monitoring population movements of Malawians. Ideally, boundaries should be reviewed after every national census ie. 10 years.

 

The Constitution provides that the Commission should demarcate constituencies based on population that is approximately equal numbers of voters eligible to register is again problematic.  The provision forces MEC to make use of data that it has no control over.  Unlike other jurisdictions like Zambia where the Voters Register is used.  In Malawi, the Commission depends on NSO figures.  When NSO is unable to provide the required information, the Commission cannot move.

 

However, despite the challenges mentioned above, the Commission is aware of the ongoing electoral reforms and there are likely to be proposals by the Task Force on Electoral Reforms that can alter the current situation.