Malawi’s Presidential Elections Ruling: A Bittersweet Turning PointFebruary 25, 2020 in Uncategorized
Malawi’s Presidential Elections Ruling: A Bittersweet Turning Point
Following months of instability characterised by violent protests and attacks on rights activists, on 3 February 2020, Malawi’s constitutional court annulled the presidential election results from 21 May 2019. Fresh elections will be held within 150 days, according to the court ruling. This new development in Malawi’s electoral destiny signals a progressive new chapter in the country’s attempts to maintain the integrity of its democratic process. Equally, this unprecedented ruling by the constitutional court means that the prospect of further violence and political instability in Malawi is likely to continue for at least 6 months.
The landmark ruling is significant because this is the first election to be legally challenged since Malawi’s independence in 1964. The ruling demonstrated the independence of the country’s judiciary, and more crucially, the judiciary’s ability to flex its legal muscles in a meaningful way. While the judges ruled that the election was not stolen, it said that there was blatant evidence of widespread rigging, which compromised the integrity of the election. This ruling came in favour of opposition parties, despite reports on 22 January 2020 of bribery attempts by a prominent Malawi Banker, Dr Thompson Mpinganjira. The implications of this decision are multi-fold. At a local level this is a win for opposition parties in Malawi and impedes on a culture of widespread impunity. The ruling also stands to change the political landscape of Malawi because the judges have declared the current first-past-the post system is unconstitutional; a gain of more than 50% is required in future elections. This has effectively weakened the power of the incumbent ruling party which had won 38.6% of the vote. Furthermore, this could change the strategic approaches of opposition parties in future elections, where coalitions are more likely.
At a regional level, Malawi’s decision has disrupted the status-quo of mired elections, dogged by broken and ineffective judiciaries. The recent contended results in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe election could have brought a different outcome, if the judiciary had taken similar action to that of Malawi. This ruling also comes at an opportune moment where opposition parties in the southern Africa region in 2019 generally fared badly during their respective elections. A big power shift from liberation movement parties to more contemporary parties had been projected, amid growing dissatisfaction with regional governments, poor service delivery, rising unemployment and inequality. The annulment of Malawi’s 2019 election signals an opportunity for the continued spreading of democracy in the wider southern Africa region, after it appeared as though these gains were backsliding. This hope is important at a time where former liberation movements see their support base eroding, and some governments look to “managed democracies” like Russia or China as a model.
Although the election annulment could have set a precedent of fair judicial arbitration in Malawi, it could prompt more authoritarian regimes to limit the effectiveness of an independent judiciary.
From a security perspective, the judicial ruling may have worked to maintain the integrity of a fair democratic process in Malawi; however, it has done little to assuage the challenge of maintaining public order and political stability amid heightened political tensions. In the months after the 21 May 2019 elections, there was widespread violence which involved looting and destruction of property. Two people, one police officer and one civilian- were reportedly killed during the multitude of anti-government demonstrations. In a report released in December 2019, by Malawi’s Human Rights Commission, it confirmed that at least 8 women were raped and sexually violated during October’s post- election unrest. The incident of the rapes had led to E.U diplomat to Malawi, Sandra Paesen, being ordered to leave the country for protesting the crime.
Despite the constitutional court ruling on 3 February 2020, reports surfaced on 6 February that foreigner’s shops were looted by mobs seeking to take advantage of the political uncertainty. On 13 February 2020, protestors padlocked the offices of the electoral commission in an effort to force the chairwoman of Malawi’s Electoral Commission to quit.
On the same day, the Constitutional Court in Malawi rejected the appeal brought by President Mutharika and Malawi’s Electoral Commission, to suspend its earlier judgement.
Although the judicial intervention in Malawi’s calamitous election saga may have protected the integrity of Malawi’s democratic process, so far this has resulted in more questions than answers, causing further instability in the country. As Malawi attempts to fund and run new presidential elections in under five months, it is likely for political tensions and civil unrest to escalate, which may result in demonstrations and incidences of violence continuing. The constitutional court has not just ordered a rerun of the elections, it has ruled that the country should do away with the first-past-the post system. In theory it is a matter of implementing the ruling, in reality, a consensus is unlikely on the exact interpretation of the decision. How political parties decide to strategically organise themselves and potentially coalesce for the elections, could be another source for instability and possible violence.
The period leading up to this rerun, the unknown outcome, and reaction to the results means that Malawi is likely to experience continued instability for at least the next 6 months.