JOHANNESBURG, 13 February (IRIN) - As political tension continues to simmer in Malawi, a new initiative has been launched to build bridges between civil society and the country's lawmakers.
The independent Institute for Policy Interaction has organised a workshop to bring parliamentarians and civil society activists together to discuss issues of accountability and cooperation.
"What we are trying to do is catalyse a deeper discussion among key players both in parliament and civil society," the institute's co-director, Rafiq Hajat, told IRIN. "I'm concerned over the deterioration of the situation, because the political violence in Malawi is a symptom of the deeper antagonisms that are emerging. What's needed is a bridge-building exercise."
The 26 February workshop, funded by the German development agency GTZ, will bring parliamentarians from all parties together with an equal number of civil society representatives from the church, media, human rights groups and local assembly councillors.
Among the subjects for discussion are issues around enhancing participation in parliament, and parliamentary accountability. "They seem innocuous", said Hajat, "but something like enhancing parliamentary accountability is very deep".
Malawi has increasingly become politically polarised. Key to that process has been an official campaign begun in 2002 to change the constitution to allow President Bakili Muluzi to run for a third five-year term in 2004. Two attempts to pass a constitutional amendment failed, in the face of widespread civil society protest determined to defend what they alleged was a threat to Malawi's fledgling democracy.
The third-term debate has been set against the background of food shortages that threaten 3.3 million people, low standards of education and a devastating HIV/AIDS pandemic that kills 70,000 people annually. Western donors have also blasted the government for alleged corruption and mismanagement.
Underlining the deepening political intolerance, the Human Rights Commission, a statutory body under the constitution, last year reported increased intimidation and violence orchestrated by the ruling party's militia, the "Young Democrats". The opposition have also accused the government of harassing the judiciary, riding roughshod over parliamentary process, and attempting to muzzle the media. The police have also been condemned as partisan.
The International Bar Association, a United Kingdom-based international lawyers association, also said in a report last year that there was "damning evidence of corruption and abuse".
"Until the third-term issue comes to an end, there will continue to be tension," Oxfam programme representative in Malawi, Nellie Nyang'wa, told IRIN.
However, she regards the parliamentarians and civil society workshop as "a good initiative for Malawi at the moment", if it can help ease the level of political friction between the authorities and their critics.
"There is a misunderstanding over the role of civil society by the government. That misunderstanding becomes clear when the government accuses civil society of being partisan, when they are just trying to make a point the government doesn't like," she said.
After 14 years of multiparty democracy, Malawi is still struggling to escape the profoundly un-democratic legacy of the 30-year dictatorship of Hastings Kamazu Banda.
"We've had to overcome a culture of silence that's still permeating, it takes a long time to change a mindset," Hajat explained. "With this transition to democracy, civil society has demanded a more participatory role, but civil society itself is fragmented and lacks coherence at times to interact effectively with the government on burning issues."
Nyang'wa acknowledged that civil society could do well to learn how to better put its case to government.
However, she said, there have been some positive examples of cooperation, notably over the development of Malawi's Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) for the International Monetary Fund.
"It's not all darkness or gloom, there are a lot of positive aspects that can be capitalised on to build a better relationship. The only [problem] is this political battle over the third term," she added.
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