Polls have closed in Malawi’s hotly contested presidential vote, the second time in just over a year, after incumbent President Peter Mutharika’s re-election was annulled by the courts over irregularities.
Some 6.8 million people were eligible to vote in Tuesday’s rerun, practically a two-horse race between Mutharika and opposition leader Lazarus Chakwera. A third candidate, Peter Kuwani, was also in the running.
The election is much anticipated after the Constitutional Court in early February ruled that the May 2019 vote was fraught with “grave and widespread irregularities”, including the use of correction fluid on results sheets.
It ordered new elections be held within 150 days of its February ruling.
Mutharika slammed the verdict as a “serious miscarriage of justice” and, along with the electoral commission, 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, there was a big turnout in the cities of Blantyre, Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Zomba, with some voters arriving an hour before polling stations opened at 6am.
“I am happy because this rerun is the will of the people. And with this vote, I just hope that the best person wins. The will of the people will triumph,” said Peter Chadza, 26, a businessman who arrived at a polling station in Lilongwe an hour and a half before voting was due to start.
Voting proceeded without major incident, although regional police spokesperson Williams Kaponda said 20 people had been arrested on Monday night after being found with a fake ballot box stuffed with pre-marked ballot sheets.
Mutharika, of the governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), voted in his home district of Thyolo in southern Malawi. He called for a peaceful election after hearing about a few reports of harassment
“People should be allowed to choose a leader they want, to govern this country,” he said.
Chakwera, leader of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), who voted near Lilongwe, also called for non-violence.
Chifundo Kachale, the recently appointed chairperson of the electoral commission, assured voters the polling process would be fair.
“We do not want issues which were identified in last year’s annulled poll to arise again,” he told reporters on Monday.
He did not give a definite date for when results would be released.
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.
But now, a candidate will have to garner more than 50 percent of the votes to be declared the outright winner and avoid the possibility of a runoff.
In March, the two opposition parties that petitioned the constitutional court to review last year’s election – the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), headed by Chakwera, and the United Transformation Movement (UTM) – announced 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 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.
“This election is unique. First, this election is born out of a court ruling, and second, they will follow the 50-percent-plus-one system,” the Public Affairs Committee, an influential quasi-religious civic group, said in a statement.
Gift Trapence of the Human Rights Defenders Coalition, which led months-long countrywide protests against last year’s election results, has high hopes this time around.
“Our expectation is that this election will be credible and fair enough to Malawians,” Trapence said, while warning: “We will remain vigilant.”
The election rerun is taking place amid the coronavirus pandemic that has killed 11 people and infected at least 730 in the country of 18 million.
The electoral commission has provided hand-washing facilities at each of the 5,000 polling stations to guard against the spread of COVID-19.
At Malembo Primary School in the capital Lilongwe, voters washed their hands with soap and water before lining up to vote, but none wore face masks or kept their distance in the queue.
“People really want to vote, whether we have coronavirus or not,” said voter Innocent Maguya, a 34-year-old driver, waiting to cast his ballot.
“We would rather risk the disease than run the risk of having a president that people don’t want. We cannot stop this crucial vote because there are no face masks,” he said.