The laws in Malawi allow for both local and international electoral observation. As such the Malawi Electoral Commission always invites electoral stakeholders to observe elections a year prior to the polling day. Even without the invitation of the Commission, stakeholders willing to observe the polls are free to approach the Commission and express their intention to do so.
The Malawi Electoral Commission values the role of observers in upholding the principles of free, fair and credible elections hence there is no accreditation fee attached to the observers’ accreditation process. However, the observers are expected to operate within the provisions of the electoral laws of Malawi. They are also supposed to abide by the code of conduct for electoral observers and other codes of conduct that have been put in place to facilitate smooth conduct of the elections.
You will agree with me that election observation is a valuable tool for improving the quality of elections. Observers help build public confidence in the conduct of the electoral processes. Observation can help promote and protect the civil and political rights of participants in elections. It can lead to the correction of errors or weak practices, even while an election process is still underway. It can deter manipulation and fraud, or expose such problems if they do occur. When observers issue positive reports, they build trust in the democratic process and enhances the legitimacy of the governments that emerge from elections.
Election observation by domestic groups encourages civic involvement in the political process. Following elections, reports and recommendations by observer groups often lead to changes and improvements in national law and practice.
Despite these numerous achievements and successes that domestic observers can justifiably claim, a number of challenges remain. These impede the working relationship between MEC and domestic observer groups in Malawi.
Most of the domestic observers in Malawi use or engage observers which are unqualified in electoral matters or they lack experience on how elections are run. It is vitally important that domestic election observation groups enjoy the respect and confidence of the public. Therefore, it is imperative that the Observer groups recruit persons with expertise in elections management to lead the groups. However, this has not been the case with some domestic observer groups in Malawi. They have staffs that do not have knowledge on how the electoral process is carried out. This is also reflected in their report writing. Indeed, well-known and highly respected individuals may automatically bring visibility and legitimacy to their mission of observing elections. However, their professionalism is compromised by the support staffs they engage who are not experts in elections. This is may be attributed to poor or inadequate training for the support staff. The Commission has now and again recommended to the domestic observer groups to recruit personnel with elections management knowledge and experience and those who are familiar with the environment in which they will work.
Ideally, an observation mission should start its work months before the Election Day by reviewing the legal framework, monitoring voter registration and candidate nomination, evaluating the work of the EMB, assessing the political campaign, and following media coverage of the election.
These are but some of the challenges the Commission face working with domestic elections observers. In our next article we shall continue mentioning the challenges MEC face working with domestic observers.