Beyond Violence 

Between a Rock and a Hard Place part II: The Malawi Elections Revisited

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A month after the general elections in Malawi, we can conclude that the many handouts by President Banda to poor rural voters did not make them vote for her. On Friday night, May 30th, right before the constitutional deadline at midnight, the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) announced Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Peter Mutharika as president-elect after ten nerve-wracking days of mutual accusations of rigging, a suicide, court fights and a police murder. What exactly happened during these ten days in May, and what will it mean for the future of Malawi?

While the Malawi Tripartite Elections of 20 May 2014 were supposed to start at 6 AM, many of the 4,445 polling stations did not open before noon or, in some cases, the next day. Representatives of the polling stations and voters reported a lack of, and in a few cases even a complete absence of ballots. As a result, the elections did not end until two days later. A few incidents of violence took place, as angry voters were unable to vote and took to the streets of Lilongwe and Blantyre, burning ballots, tires and sometimes even whole polling stations. As predicted in my previous piece on the elections, the supporters of the former president Joyce Banda were clearly not among the urban population of both cities.

On 21 May, the unofficial election results started to trickle in. Soon it became clear that notable agencies such as the Economist Intelligence Unit, Al Jazeera and the Guardian were incorrect in their predictions that the incumbent President Banda had the best chance to win. Local government Minister Godfrey Kamanya committed suicide on the same day, accusing two DPP officials of threats made against him.

On 24 May, DPP candidate and brother of Banda’s predecessor Peter Mutharika was leading at 30% of votes counted. At this daunting prospect, Banda made one last attempt to cling to power. She declared the elections were annulled and called for new elections within 90 days in which she vowed not to run. The reader should know that when Banda’s predecessor and brother to Peter Mutharika, former president Bingu Wa Mutharika died in 2012, Peter Mutharika allegedly tried to keep the then-estranged vice-president Banda from becoming the next president. As a result, Peter was charged with treason, a charge he still faced when he became president on 2nd June. The Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) did not broadcast the president’s announcement of the nullification live. As a result, Director General of MBC, Benson Tembo, was sent home on forced leave by the president.

The DPP understandably protested Banda’s highly contested decision to annul the elections, while the supposed close runner-up, the Malawi Congress Party, initially remained silent. After an injunction by the MEC, the Malawi Law Society and the DPP, the Malawi High Court rejected Banda’s order, after which the counting continued.

However, the MEC announced that it would arrange for a manual recount due to some serious irregularities. The irregularities were indeed serious; in some electoral districts there were more votes counted than there were voters. The downside to this announcement? A manual recount would have taken “less than a month” according to the MEC. On 30 May, the day of the final deadline, a riot broke out in Mangochi, in which one protester was shot and killed by the police. Only an hour before midnight, the final deadline after 8 days of counting, Judge Kenyatta Nyirenda ruled that while the MEC was entitled to do a recount, he would not extend the deadline. Subsequently, the MEC was forced to announce DPP’s Peter Mutharika winner of the presidential elections with a minority vote of 36,4%. President Banda came in third, after MCP’s Chakwera, with only 20,2% of the votes.

Publicly, Malawians were quick to accept Mutharika as their new President, but amongst each other, at least in Lilongwe, people remain suspicious. During the past year that I have been residing in Malawi, I have learned that it is not part of the Malawian culture to get to the bottom of things but to accept them the way they are. The prevalent reaction among the opposition seems to be to just let things go to keep the peace. Maybe this lack of resistance has kept Malawi peaceful for the past 50 years, but maybe it has kept Malawian politics stagnant as well; this could be the reason why two out of four of the candidates were family members of former presidents.

In the middle of this chaotic siuation, on the 22 May, the African Union Election Observation Mission (AU EOM) for Malawi did not waste any time in declaring the electoral process to be transparent . Despite a “significant number of anomalies in the results database”, the European Union Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) for Malawi concluded in its final report on 30 May that there was no “substantiated evidence of systematic rigging”. Considering the difference in votes between Mutharika and the runner up, Chakwera, only large-scale rigging would have made the difference.

Malawi has a new president. A president who won on a minority vote (63,4% did not vote for Mutharika) and whose legitimacy is being questioned. A president who was allegedly involved in the Cashgate scandal while he was a Minister in his brother’s cabinet; it has been estimated that at least 204 million Dollars was stolen during his presidency . However, after these chaotic ten days in May, it is not the election result that is the biggest worry. When politicians refuse to participate in television debates and fight out their battles in courts where judges decide on the workings of a clearly dysfunctional and politicized electoral commission, it is the political and electoral system that has become the biggest worry of all.

Written by Suzanne van Hooff. Suzanne currently works at an international NGO in Lilongwe, Malawi. Her professional interests include international security, conflict and post-conflict politics, transitional justice, international human rights and gender.

Written by Suzanne van Hooff and published on 29-June-2014

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