PL wrangles litmus test for the Electoral Commission

REGIONAL - What began as quiet differences among top shots of the Liberal Party (PL) have grown into a big controversy that nobody other than the courts of law can now deliver a legitimate judgment. 

REGIONAL - What began as quiet differences among top shots of the Liberal Party (PL) have grown into a big controversy that nobody other than the courts of law can now deliver a legitimate judgment. 

PL, arguably the third strongest political organisation after the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and the Senate President Dr Vincent Biruta’s Social Democratic Party (PSD), is undergoing a  political turbulence any party would never want to experience.

Disputes arising from the party’s August 5 elections are now in the hands of both the High Court and the National Electoral Commission (NEC).

It is the first time of its kind since the landmark democratic multiparty elections were held in 2003, which saw parties draw lists of their preferred candidates for the Chamber of Deputies.

None of the parties has exhausted their list and thus are always ready to replace any of their representatives in the August House in the event of new appointments or dismissal.

That is exactly what is happening today in the sharply divided PL house.

The political party president Protais Mitali last week wrote a letter to the Chamber of Deputies informing the Speaker about the party’s National Executive Committee decision to expel MPs Elie Ngirabakunzi and Isaie Murashi, and the process to replace them should start.

It was such a fast decision by the party considering that on September 16 its National Council had decided to suspend the two and three others from any party leadership role for four years.

Although the National Council had not withdrawn Ngirabakunzi and Murashi from Parliament, the suspension itself was enough to bar the duo from seeking re-election in next year’s parliamentary elections.

“It is a political death,” that is what Ngirabakunzi said when asked about the implications of the party’s initial penalty.

However, the party’s top brass led by Mitali and Senator Odette Nyiramirimo, both of them accused by the now sacked officials of corruption during party elections, went an extra-mile and decided to delete the five officials from the party books, and withdraw the two MPs from the Chamber of Deputies.

Then hell broke loose.

Within 24 hours, the expelled members had lodged a legal petition in the High Court challenging their expulsion from the party, and the two MPs specifically applied for a court injunction to block the party’s move to force them out of the Lower Chamber of Parliament.

They referred to article 78 of the 2003 Constitution which provides that disputes arising from such expulsions shall be handled by the High Court at the first instance, and the Supreme Court, in case of an appeal.

Through their lawyers, Mbaga Tuzinde Mbonyimbuga and Floribert Karuranga, the two lawmakers argue that any move to replace them is illegal since they have challenged the decision in the courts of law, something that is provided for in the Constitution.

The defence lawyers wrote to the Chamber of Deputies informing them of the legal battle that was developing and copied the letter to the President, the Chief Justice, the NEC, among other organs.

But the acting Speaker Denis Polisi went ahead and asked NEC to replace the two embattled MPs. He, too, copied the letter to the President and the Chief Justice.

Another factor in play is time. It is just about a week to the time when no more replacements can be entertained in the Chamber of Deputies because MPs cannot be replaced when the House is remaining with exactly one year to the expiry of its mandate.

Interestingly, the High Court has scheduled the hearing for the injunction application on Wednesday.

Certainly, if the MPs don’t lose the case, then they will secure a court injunction reversing any decision to replace them. Therefore, it will become a crisis should the NEC authorise the replacements and the court later outlaws. Such is the difficult situation facing the NEC.

The Commission President Prof. Chrysologue Karangwa said of the state of affairs yesterday: “We are informed of the unfolding legal battle (application for an injunction) and at the same time we have received requests from both Parliament and PL to replace the two MPs. It is certainly a tricky scenario, but I have already called a (NEC) meeting today evening to study the case.”

He said the Commission would also seek a legal interpretation from the Justice Minister Tharcisse Karugarama to avoid taking decisions that are bound to backfire.

Already the fired MPs are worried that the Commission might be influenced by one of its commissioners Oswald Burasanzwe, one of the PL members accused of rigging the contentious party elections.

Burasanzwe was the Returning Officer during the polls held at the headquarters of Red Cross in Gacuriro. Those raising bribery allegations against top party officials, accused him of being involved in the alleged malpractices and belonging to the Mitali camp.

“The whole process is being rushed because they want to take other concerned officials unawares. It is a pure syndicate,” one of the expelled members Emmanuel Musabyimana, who was the party’s president in Kicukiro Sector, Kigali, said.
However, Karangwa dismissed those allegations yesterday. He said: “Burasanzwe cannot prepare anything to give me and I swallow. I’m giving this case full attention and am very careful.

“I have already talked to the (NEC) Executive Secretary (Damien Habumuremyi) about it, and we are reaching a decision today evening. Tell them that no influence peddling will be involved,”

Karangwa, who is also a member of the ruling RPF, added: “It is a delicate case that needs a decision that is not against the Constitution. PL issues are tricky. I however, approach it in a positive spirit and I think such problems only sharpen the commission’s competence to manage complex situations.”

Pundits point to the coincidence with the upcoming election of the country’s representatives to the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) and a looming Cabinet reshuffle as a factor that could have exacerbated the PL conflicts. Sources intimated that Mitali is involved in intensive political mathematics owing to the aforementioned factors.

With the President having the monopoly of full information on who will make it to his next Cabinet, some suggest that Mitali, like a number of other ministers, are not certain about their future in Cabinet.

President Paul Kagame is expected to appoint a minister in charge of East African Affairs soon. Mitali, who is also Commerce minister, is the next in line on the PL’s 2003 list of parliamentary candidates, meaning he could easily join Parliament, in case he is dropped from Cabinet.

Observers say that would enable him to offer himself up as his party’s candidate for its one slot in the EALA. According to a draft law which is now under review in the Senate, PL, PSD, the National Youth Council, the National Women Council the National Federation of the Disabled, each has one slot in EAC Parliament, while the RPF Coalition (which include four other  parties) have four positions, out of which RPF would take three seats.

Whether the claims that Mitali is eyeing the party’s EALA slot is mere speculation or not, the truth is that he is probably the highest ranking government official who has of late been in the media over allegations of corruption.

Besides the PL case, the minister is under investigations on suspected irregularities that marred a multi-billion tender to acquire ten million litres of fuel from a Kenyan firm in 2006.

Those behind Mitali on the party’s Deputies list are Francois Udahemuka and Charles Kamanda. Will they be the lucky successors of Ngirabakunzi and Murashi?

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