Insistent Political Calamity of Malawi


 Photo source: Voice of America

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

Malawi is only the second African country to officially cancel a presidential election, after Kenya in 2017. It is also the first in which the opposition won the re-run election.

The initial May 2019 vote had narrowly returned incumbent Peter Mutharika to the presidency. But it resulted in widespread protests. Military was sent in to curb the protests from spreading. Afrobarometer in their research found out that sixty percent of Malawians believed that the said protests were justified. More than fifty three percent of Malawians said they agreed with the key demand of protest leaders that the chairperson of the Malawi Electoral Commission resign for mismanaging the election.

It was less than a year after, in February 2020, a landmark ruling by Malawi’s constitutional court annulled the result citing ‘widespread, systematic and grave’ irregularities, including missing signatures, duplicate forms, the infamous use of corrective fluid in voter tallying, and the Malawi Electoral Commission’s (MEC) failure to address complaints before announcing results. New elections were ordered within 150 days. There were scenes of the constitutional court judges arriving to deliver their annulment verdict in February 2020 wearing bulletproof vests under their robes. Although, as per some regional press sources, the Chief Justice also complained to the Malawi Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) that bribes had been offered to the five judges. Following investigations, the ACB arrested the owner of FDH Bank, Thom Mpinganjira. As a reaction, around fifty thousand people gathered in  Lilongwe, with smaller rallies in Blantyre and Mzuzu. They braved the rain and stood for vigil outside the parliament. 

As the court verdict eventually came, the fresh polls on 23 June 2020 saw the coming together of Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and Saulos Chilima of the United Transformation Movement (UTM) to head a coalition of nine opposition parties, who had fiercely competed as the leading challengers previously. The new alliance travelled widely to hold rallies.

Mutharika’s resistance to the constitutional court ruling had taken Malawi into an uncharted territory. Rejecting the constitutional court’s ruling, on March 9, 2020, Mutharika and the MEC filed an appeal to the Supreme Court. 

Africa Centre for Strategic Studies found that Mutharika had refused to assent to parliament’s electoral reform bills, and rejected the recommendation to fire the MEC commissioners through a clause where he can refuse to assent only once. Although, Mutharika was unable to call upon military support as the Malawi Defence Forces (MDF) had moved to protect protesting citizens and judiciary, since the 2019 election. 

UK diplomacy played a subtle role in encouraging Mutharika to accept the legal process. He was invited to appear at the UK-Africa Investment Summit in January 2020 while also helping promoting early dialogue among opposition parties.

Yet, in a kind of rancour, the Mutharika government switched focus back to the Malawi’s legal system by attempting to enforce the premature retirement of Malawi’s chief justice, only to be blocked by the high court.

It isn’t hard to assume, therefore, that the crisis risked Malawi’s long-cherished domestic stability. A petrol bomb thrown into the opposition United Transformation Movement (UTM) party headquarters on May 5, 2020, which killed three innocent people. Ongoing protests, in Lilongwe, led by Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) which were largely peaceful, since the announcement of the 2019 election have, on occasions, turned violent with stores being looted and cars set on fire. Police stations and metro grounds had also been torched in some areas. Farmers, miners, peasants, employees, retirees and university students marched and protested in Malawi throughout 2019 and into the first months of 2020. These fresh protests heated tensions with police, but they didn't respond as harshly in 2020 as they did in 2019.

Edge Fidelis Kanyongolo, a law expert at the University of Malawi, in an interview with Africa Arguments, believed that the anger at the justice and policing system, ‘especially where such systems are considered biased or corrupt’ have contributed to recent instances of mob justice.

Police had arrested over two hundred people in connection with these crimes. Police have also been accused of sexually assaulting around seventeen Nsundwe women while cracking down on post-election protests. 

As per an article by Fergus Kell in Chatham House: ‘the constitutional court ruling had also changed Malawi’s electoral system, replacing a first-past-the-post model with one demanding an outright majority, which further encouraged the regional power bases of Malawi’s opposition to cast ego aside and work in alliance with each other.

It is also not the first time when Malawians had rejected sitting incumbents. They had already done so twice before, rejecting sitting presidents at the polls in 1994 and 2014. In the Chatham House article, Fergus Kell further wrote: ‘ It is also not unfamiliar to see public opinion and the judiciary work in parallel to uphold the constitution: former president Bakili Muluzi was twice blocked from abolishing term limits by popular demonstration during his second term, and again prevented from running for a third time in 2009 by the constitutional court.’

As Malawi inherits a major balance of payments crisis, mounting debt, with no tourism revenue to fall back on, the new government will need to use its political capital to push for immediate reform. A spirit of unity and inclusion should be expanded, and focus must be on long-term recovery.

 


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