MS Risk Blog

Malawi Elections, Take 2

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On June 23, 2020, Malawians cast their vote for a new president in fresh polls that facilitated a rerun of the highly contended presidential election results from the May 2019 poll. This election was significant for the precedent it stood to create in relation to the country of Malawi and the continent of Africa.

The dual significance of the election results was that they were a moment of firsts for both Malawi and Africa.  A first election in Malawi that was the result of intervention from the judiciary which the opposition also went on to win. This represents another watershed moment in the democratisation process in Malawi. For Africa, Malawi is the only country on the continent to have achieved such a feat, the only other country to have come close is Kenya in 2017- although the incumbent won the election rerun. This is a highly symbolic victory which gives other opposition parties in Africa the hope that they too could set precedents in their own countries. Well wishes from current and former opposition leaders in South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe attest to this. More importantly, in the wider context Malawi’s astounding results at its second go at the presidential elections is a welcome break away from the worrying trend of elections in Africa that seem to further entrench authoritarianism rather than further the democratisation process.

The election results follow a landmark ruling from February 2020 where the constitutional court annulled the presidential election results from 21 May 2019. Fresh elections were ordered to be held within 150 days, according to the court ruling. The court also judged that the first-past-the post system was unconstitutional; a gain of more than 50% would be required in future elections. That ruling in of itself represented a watershed moment in Malawi’s history because the May 2019 election was the first to be legally challenged since Malawi’s independence in 1964 and all future elections would not be contested in the same manner which has implications for how political parties will contest elections and possibly make alliances, as evidenced by the June 2020 elections. This was significant because it demonstrated that the judiciary could be politically impartial, and more importantly could make and enforce a judgment that would not be undermined or ignored by the president or ruling party as has been the case in some African countries when it comes to court rulings. The months of unrest and instability, even after the constitutional court ruling demonstrated the vested interests many Malawians, particularly some sections of its civil society had in ensuring that this historic ruling and moment would not be lost or wasted by attempts to undermine and reverse the ruling; calling the months since last year’s election “the year of mass protests”. This period was notably marked by former President Peter Mutharika’s attempts to reverse the constitutional court ruling with stalling tactics such as his refusal to assent to Parliament’s electoral reform bills and rejecting the recommendation to fire the MEC commissioners, including launching appeals to challenge the ruling from February 2020. This period has been a threat to Malawi’s long-cherished domestic stability. A petrol bomb thrown into the opposition United Transformation Movement (UTM) party headquarters on May 5, 2020, killed three innocent people. While largely peaceful, ongoing protests since the announcement of the 2019 election have, on occasion, turned violent with stores being looted and cars set on fire. Police have arrested over 200 people in connection with these crimes. Police have also been accused of sexually assaulting 17 women while cracking down on post-election protests.

The June 2020 elections resulted in the opposition led by Lazarus Chakwera’s Malawi Congress Party (MCP) winning 2.6 million of the 4 million votes cast, which represents about 59%. Contrastingly, the incumbent Peter Mutharika’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) only managed to secure 1.7 million votes, which is about 39%. After 26 years in opposition Chakwera’s MCP party unseated the incumbent DPP to win the presidency in a united 9-party coalition, the Tonse Alliance, that also included Saulos Chilima who was Chakwera’s running mate and formerly Mutharika’s vice president until he left the DPP in 2018 to form the United Transformation Movement. Chilima has been widely credited as having played a critical role in both Mutharika and Chakwera’s successful campaigns for the presidency, his savvy marketing strategy and ability to appeal to voters in all regions of the country is what arguably makes him kingmaker of sorts in the Malawian political landscape. Traditionally Malawian elections have historically shown regionalised and ethnic voting patterns, with presidential candidates drawing on compartmentalised strongholds, therefore Chilima’s ability to generate a crossover appeal was a critical advantage in the Chakwera camp.

Ultimately Malawi’s second go at the elections represented a strong political will to implement and deliver democracy at all costs, including the total neglect to maintain preventative measures to halt the spread of coronavirus as large rallies were held all over the country, with little social distancing in sight. Furthermore, the events that led up to the elections and the subsequent result is perhaps the amalgamation of deep-rooted frustrations with a struggling economy, rampant corruption and lack of police reform that are yet to be addressed in a meaningful way, and this will be one of Chakwera’s greatest challenges in his presidency.

Although Malawi’s elections present a welcome break away from some of the more problematic aspects of African politics and its electoral processes, this result is probably more meaningful in the Malawian context in terms of tangible gains and a symbolic victory in the African context. The Malawi example presents an insightful case study of how meaningful democracy, rather than mere window dressing, can be implemented with integrity when the political will is sufficient, however it is perhaps ambitious to assert that the Malawi example can replicated in other African countries in the same manner.  There are a variety of factors in the Malawi case that are not necessarily the same in other African countries which brought about the results of the 23 June 2020 rerun, there is no one-size- fits- all process when it comes to democratisation in Africa. Although a lot of credit has been given to sustained pressure from civil society in order to bring out Malawi’s electoral result and on 21 May 2020 the resignation of the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC), Jane Ansah- how the civil society is made up and operates in separate countries is not ubiquitous. Further to this there are other demographic factors such as the history of a country and its political parties and how this in turn influences the political economy of the electoral and general political landscape. Another relatively exceptional contributory factor is that Mutharika was unable to utilise the Malawi Defence Forces (MDF) to antagonise dissenters, leading him to fire General Vincent Ndundwe in March 2020 after Ndundwe was perceived to have ‘protected’ anti-government protestors. The MDF is regarded as an institution which can be counted on to uphold the constitution in times of political crisis. Malawi has been an exception for decades in a continent where armies often prop up governments, crush dissent and interfere in mainstream politics.

Malawi’s presidential election rerun, and its results have a more significant impact nationally than they do regionally, mainly because of the difficulty in replicating a similar set of events in another Africa country- owing to the range of individual country factors that are usually not ubiquitous. The highly charismatic personalities such as Saulos Chilima who are viewed as authentic and trustworthy by the electorate,  have long been in embedded in the political fabric of Malawi and his  strategic contribution is among a list of catalysts that have been part of an ongoing process which has eventually led to the 23 June 2020 outcome. Malawi’s exceptional results in the presidential election rerun is a demonstration of its democracy maturing. It stands as an encouraging positive example in the African continent , particularly for opposition parties, that where the political and public will for democratic integrity is present, change or at least steps to change are in the realm of possibility.