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The role of MPs needs to be clearly defined

AS THE country approaches the general elections, campaigns for the various candidates aspiring to serve the electorate in various capacities as their elected representatives have also heated up. According to the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ), a total of 749 parliamentary candidates successfully filed their nominations in 156 constituencies to contest the August 11, 2016 general elections. Apart from the political and social influence that comes with the position, it is clear that the occupation of a member of Parliament has come to attract a lot of aspirants in the forthcoming elections although it remains unclear if the various candidates fully understand and appreciate what is expected of them once elected as MPs in the various constituencies. Similarly, the majority of the electorate do not seem to know what the role of their elected representatives is. In many cases, this has resulted in the campaigns for these parliamentary elections to be characterised by unprecedented levels of misinformation, deceit and all kinds of manipulations by candidates in an effort to win the elections. It is, therefore, evident that there has not been much civic education on the part of voters on the roles of their MPs during their tenure in parliament.
The republican President, through the powers conferred by the Constitution, calls Parliament to meet, orders elections to take place and gives final approval to laws (the presidential assent) although does not play an active role in the daily work of parliament. It is the National Assembly, which consists of elected and nominated members of Parliament, that carries out a wide range of important public responsibilities.
Although the exact roles and responsibilities of an MP are not clearly stated in the Constitution of Zambia, Article 62 outlines the legislative powers and privileges of MPs and that of parliamentary committees. These responsibilities include examining bills, making laws (acts of parliament), approving proposals for taxation and public expenditure, and keeping the work of the government under scrutiny and review. MPs split their time between working in Parliament, working in the constituency that elected them and working for their political party.
In Zambia, the President appoints ministers from within parliament and, therefore, some MPs from the ruling party are appointed to government ministerial positions with specific responsibilities such as minister of Health, Education, Defence and so on. These MPs are expected to continue to work for their constituencies regardless of their role in Government or Parliament and are further expected to hold regular visits and inspect projects in their constituencies.
During parliamentary sittings or sessions, MPs generally spend their time working in parliament. This includes raising issues affecting their constituents, attending to debates and voting on new laws. This can either be by asking government ministers questions on behalf of their electorate highlighting particular issues which are affecting the local people. Parliament also has the responsibility of ratifying appointments of constitutional office-bearers such as the attorney general, auditor general, solicitor general, director of public prosecution, judges, supreme court judge and other important constitutional appointments made by the President.
MPs also supervise the executive by participating in committees such as the Public Accounts Committee. The committee examines the accounts showing the appropriation of sums granted by the National Assembly to meet the public expenditure, the report of the auditor-general on these accounts and such other accounts. The committee also exercises the powers conferred on it under article 117(5) of the Constitution of the Republic of Zambia.
Further, as the national budget is presented to Parliament every year by the minister of Finance, MPs exercise budgetary control over the executive in matters of finance through parliamentary committees such as the Public Accounts Committee. In this way, no tax can be levied or expenditure incurred by the government without the approval of Parliament.
When parliament adjourns, MPs are expected to hold visits to their parliamentary offices in their constituencies, where local people can go to discuss any matters that concern them. Some people, however, expect MPs to attend social functions such as funerals and weddings, and to donate to the vulnerable in their constituencies. Others also expect MPs to regularly visit schools, hospitals and inspect constituency projects and generally meet as many people as possible to get an insight into issues they may discuss when they return to parliament. All these have come to be the general expectations of MPs in our country.
His tor ical ly, the Zambian Parliament is one of the oldest continuously functioning legislatures in the southern African sub-region. The first meeting of the Northern Rhodesia Parliament took place on May 23, 1924 in Livingstone, the first capital of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Since independence on October 24, 1964, the country has evolved through 11 parliaments. In this regard, by this year on October 24, the Zambian Parliament will have continuously have enjoyed parliamentary democracy for 52 years.
Therefore, as the country prepares to have another parliament after the August 11 elections, there is need to clearly define the role of our MPs and also bring to scrutiny by the electorate the calibre and competence of the men and women aspiring to be our elected representatives. This is because Parliament is a critical arm of Government in any parliamentary democracy and is responsible for the effective checks and controls of the other arms of government.
The author is a fourth year student in political science at the University of Zambia.