Security was tight on Malawi’s “Judgement Day”.
Jumping into a small fleet of armoured military vehicles under an overcast February sky, Healey Potani and his four fellow judges were ferried to the nation’s High Court in Lilongwe.
Across the country, shops and offices were shut as citizens anxiously awaited the judges’ ruling on whether to annul last year’s disputed elections.
Tensions had been running high since the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) declared incumbent President Peter Mutharika the narrow winner of a May 2019 vote despite cries of foul play. Calling the results “daylight robbery”, two opposition parties petitioned the constitutional court to review the election as the dispute spilled on to the streets.
Broadcast live in both English and Chichewa, the months-long court proceedings gripped Malawi. February 3 was Judgement Day, and the nation was on tenterhooks as Potani began shortly after 9am to deliver the court’s 500-page ruling.
It would take more than 10 hours to read it in full, but the judges early on detailed a laundry list of gross irregularities, including the widespread use of the infamous Tipp-Ex correction fluid on ballot papers to alter figures. Glued to their radios, Malawians heard that the MEC’s actions “demonstrated incompetence” and “greatly undermined the integrity of the elections”.
A new vote should be held within 150 days, the judges unanimously ordered, sparking mass celebrations by opposition supporters.
Mutharika slammed the verdict as a “serious miscarriage of justice” and, along with the MEC, filed an appeal. But on May 8, the Supreme Court upheld the earlier ruling, setting the stage for Malawians to return to the polls again on Tuesday to pick their next president.
In last year’s nullified vote, the 79-year-old incumbent – an academic and brother of former president, the late Bingu wa Mutharika – was handed a second term in office with 38.57 percent of the vote, slightly ahead of his main challenger, Lazarus Chakwera, at 35.41 percent.
This time, however, merely garnering the most votes will not be enough. In their landmark ruling, the five-judge panel stipulated that a presidential candidate must secure an absolute majority to be declared the winner.
This is a game-changer.
“It is clear that no political party, as contested during the 2019 elections, would get the 50 percent plus one vote – so alliances have become the most obvious alternative,” said Jimmy Kainja, lecturer in media, communication and cultural studies at the University of Malawi.
The two parties behind last year’s legal challenge, the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), headed by Chakwera, and the United Transformation Movement (UTM), announced in March that they would team up in the election re-run.
Chakwera, a 65-year-old pastor turned politician, was chosen to lead the newly formed Tonse Alliance, which also includes several smaller parties. His running mate is Saulos Chilima, UTM leader and Mutharika’s former deputy who finished third in last year’s poll. Combined, the pair’s official 2019 vote tally surges to almost 56 percent, well above the threshold that guarantees an outright win.
For its part, Mutharika’s governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) joined forces with the United Democratic Front (UDF), led by Atupele Muluzi, the son of former President Bakili Muluzi. If they repeat last year’s electoral performance, the joint DPP-UFF ticket would gather a little more than 43 percent.
Unsurprisingly, analysts say Mutharika has tried to stall the electoral process.
Since the court’s decision in February, he has refused to sign bills that would have paved the way for the fresh vote, and he sought to reverse the adoption of the 50 percent +1 electoral rule. He also appointed a new commission just 16 days before this week’s vote and left two commission members in place despite the fact they were deemed incompetent by the courts and parliament.
“I strongly believe that he thought through various machinations at his disposal he would be able to frustrate the elections and hang on to power,” said Blessings Chinsinga, professor of political economy at Chancellor College, University of Malawi.
Mutharika insists he was legitimately elected and has cast himself as a victim of a “judicial coup d’etat”. But having lost nearly all of his recent court battles, the former law professor and his circle have repeatedly expressed anger at the judiciary. And on June 12, Mutharika upped the ante by attempting to forcibly retire one of the Supreme Court justices.
— Malawi Elects (@MalawiElects) June 17, 2020
The move against Chief Justice Andrew Nyirenda was halted by a High Court injunction, but not before drawing widespread condemnation that saw judicial staff, lawyers and academics take to the streets of major cities in protest.
Chinsinga called the pressure on Nyirenda “an attempt to undermine the independence of the judiciary so that it no longer functions as the bulwark” of Malawi’s democracy.
“The judiciary perhaps remains the only institution that has not been captured by the politicians. It has always saved Malawi’s fragile democratic project from collapsing at critical times when politicians have engineered or schemed measures to undercut its vibrance.”
A country of some 18 million people, Malawi heads into its second election in 13 months with the economy – heavily dependent on donor funds and exports of tea and tobacco – struggling under the pressure of prolonged political uncertainty and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier in June, the finance minister warned that this “unexpected” double threat has caused “severe disruptions to the country’s economic spine” and could result in its GDP shrinking this year by as much as 3.8 percent.
This comes as a staggering 85 percent of Malawians think the country is headed in the wrong direction and almost three out of four describe their living conditions as being very/fairly bad, according to a pre-election poll.
Their main concern? Getting food on the table.
“Malawians want the government to be responsive to their needs, top of which is addressing the perennial challenge of hunger and food shortages,” said Boniface Dulani, research director at the Institute of Public Opinion and Research (IPOR), which carried out the survey.
“Other issues include better management of the economy, reducing poverty and unemployment, and eliminating corruption.”
Crucially, the IPOR poll also found that 51 percent of the 1,346 respondents would vote for the Tonse Alliance in Tuesday’s rerun, against 33 percent for the DPP/UDF coalition, and 0.2 percent for the third candidate, Peter Kuwani. Ten percent of respondents said they were undecided.
To maintain momentum and avoid a possible runoff, opposition leaders Chakwera and Chilima have crisscrossed the landlocked country in recent weeks, wooing supporters with pledges of creating one million jobs for young people and rolling out a universal subsidy on fertiliser.
In contrast, Mutharika has been a “reluctant campaigner” who has “essentially delegated” the canvassing to his running mate, Muluzi, according to Chinsinga.
In his rare appearances on the campaign trail, Mutharika has repeated last year’s pledge to “transform” Malawi, one of the world’s poorest countries, into Singapore over the next five years. Countering the key messages of the opposition has also been central to the DPP-UDF alliance’s electioneering, including promises to extend the fertiliser subsidy programme and promote infrastructure development.
Both camps, and especially the opposition alliance, have sought to mobilise support by staging lively campaign rallies in defiance of a ban on large gatherings during the coronavirus crisis.
To date, Malawi has registered 730 confirmed COVID-19 infections, including 11 related deaths and 258 recoveries.
An attempt by the government to implement a full lockdown was blocked in April by the courts in response to a legal challenge by the Malawi Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC), the civil society group that also spearheaded the protests in the wake of last year’s vote.
“The social-distancing measures put in place were seen as the government’s plot to stop the opposition campaigning, since the fresh presidential election was going ahead despite the coronavirus,” said Kainja.
And now, observers expect a large turnout on Tuesday, saying the public’s faith in the electoral process has been buoyed by the independent stance of the judiciary and the resignation last month of embattled former MEC chair, Justice Jane Ansah, a main demand of the HRDC-led protests.
According to the recent IPOR poll, nine out 10 Malawians are ready to cast their ballots in the rerun despite the lack of major electoral reforms and a series of outstanding logistical challenges.
Dulani, who is also a senior lecturer in political science at the University of Malawi, said the MEC, under the leadership of its new head, Justice Chifundo Kachale, “has demonstrated that it is committed to going ahead with holding the election and has worked hard to allay people’s fears of another compromised election”.
Whoever wins will face the daunting task of healing divisions in a country emerging from a bruising year of nearly constant and sometimes violent demonstrations.
But history will be on their side. Ever since its shift from one-party rule to multi-party democracy in 1994, Malawi has had generally smooth transitions of power.
The weeks leading up to this year’s vote have also been largely been peaceful, even though the campaign has been punctuated by sporadic acts of violence – especially when the main candidates appeared in rival strongholds.
Looking ahead, analysts said they were optimistic there would not be widespread and long-lasting unrest – so long as the results truly reflect the will of the electorate.
Malawians, Chinsinga said, “are crying [out] for a government that would demonstrate capacity to take decisive and focused steps that would ultimately change the fortunes of the country”.
Most now “just want to vote and move on with their lives”, added Kainja.
“Malawi has effectively been in elections mode since mid-2018, and in the past 12 months there has been a lot of political uncertainty,” said Kainja. “To effectively govern and deal with the challenges facing the country, including COVID-19, Malawi needs a government that has the legitimacy of the Malawians and it is trusted.”