The President and the place of Civil Society

Mutharika’s remark last week, that Pac should form a political party shows a poor understanding of democracy. He seems to be saying that only political parties are legitimate political players, while we all know how important civil society is for democracy. Especially in Malawi where the separation of powers does not function well in politics, we need civil society to provide checks and balances to the powers that be. But Mutharika does not like it that way: he prefers to deal with elections only, and then the winner is the Bwana for 5 years. Well, Mr President Mutharika, democracy does not function that way. If we look at what the experts have to say about it, we see that all political philosophers see democracy as much more than only elections and winner is the Bwana.

Democracy needs checks and balances. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. So we need to prevent absolute power, and to do that we need checks and balances. In an ideal democracy the three estates of government are balancing powers. But in Malawi, as in some other Afrian countries, we see that the executive takes much more than its share of power. One reason is that the President, who heads the executive, has too much power in one person. He appoints and fires all ministers, the OPC, and the Attorney General, who heads the judicial arm of government. So here the Executive has direct power over another estate, the Judiciary. This is a violation of the separation of powers. Also the President appoints and fire the heads of several organizations that are supposed to provide checks and balances: the heads of police, Anti Corruption Bureau, Financial Intelligence Unit. This makes it impossible for these organizations to investigate those who enjoy Presidential protection. The President can even be pressed into doing this by powerful members of his party or other powerful people. We need to protect the President against this by spreading the powers he has over more of the estates: the judiciary and the legislative. The same goes for the appointments of the heads of para statals, the Malawi Broadcasting Company and others. Again here the President can be pressed to politicize appointments. Again we can protect the President from this by spreading these powers over the three arms of government, and panels of experts.

blog_accountability_word-cloudNow that the situation is that there is an enormous power in one person, the President, and this power extends over the other arms of government, the opposition from outside government becomes even more important for the correct functioning of democracy. This means civil society: pressure groups like PAC, trade unions, professional associations and others need to provide the checks and balances that keep government in check.

Sometimes some government people give the impression that they feel civil society and other organizations are in their way when they try to provide development. Government has to take all kinds of hurdles in implementing its policies, and some of these are put there by civil society. However, the opposite is true: these hurdles are essential in providing the checks and balances that keep government functioning for the good of the people. Government functionaries inevitably develop interests of their own, which sometimes are different from the interests of the people. These interests are pursued, as all people pursue interests. This is not a character flaw or a lack or morals, this is being human. And we must recognize that all government functionaries all the way to the Highest position, are human. The way to protect them from immoral behavior is not to appeal to morals: in the current situation there are often no alternatives. So we need to change the situation to one where the checks and balances on the government functionaries are functioning, and the functionaries, all the way up to the Highest functionary, are not capable of behaving in an immoral way, because the checks and balances are strong.

If we look at the international situation: in the USA President Trump tried to impose an2b0ff2cf2d6a3ad5b1b0a566c337d0cf illegal Muslim ban, and he was stopped by the judiciary. He tried to take away health care from many American citizens and he was stopped by Parliament. The MPs were pressured by their constituencies in Town Hall meetings. All examples of checks and balances on power, which keep democracy functioning when a President tries to overstep his constitutional mandate. We need that too: we need a judiciary functioning independently of the Executive, which means the President cannot have the power to fire the AG. We need Town Hall meetings, or something equivalent, where the constituency can hold their MP to account. We need a Parliament that is not bought or intimidated into supporting bad laws. And we need civil society to expose any bad policy from Capital Hill. They have a mandate to do so, simply because of the fact they are inhabitants of the country Malawi. Whether PAC or any other organization or inhabitant wants to: every one of us has the right to hold Government to account. And that includes you and me!

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