Malawi faces uncertain political future after court annuls election

Sunday February 9 2020

Malawi President Peter Mutharika.

Malawi President Peter Mutharika won 38.57 per cent of the vote in the May 2019 election but a court challenge from the opposition uncovered widespread irregularities. PHOTO | AFP  

KITSEPILE NYATHI
By KITSEPILE NYATHI
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Malawians may be staring into an uncertain political future after President Peter Mutharika’s election victory in 2019 was nullified for having widespread irregularities.

And while Prof Mutharika himself could be the immediate victim, analysts say his decision to appeal could determine the country’s future.

Prof Mutharika has been leader of Malawi since 2014 when he took over from Joyce Banda. Whereas he had won 38.57 per cent of the vote in the May 2019 election, a court challenge from the opposition uncovered widespread irregularities including the use of correction fluid on result sheets.

The 79-year-old leader beat main opposition candidates, Lazarus Chakwera, who got 35 per cent while Saulos Chilima was placed third with 20 per cent. The Court, however, said the illegalities made it difficult to declare the results legitimate.

Even before the court case, opposition candidates had claimed victory, triggering mass street protests in a country ranked among the most peaceful on the continent.

As it is, fresh elections must be held in the next 150 days, barring Prof Mutharika’s appeal. The big question though is whether mistakes pointed out in the nullified election will have been rectified by that time.

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In a unanimous ruling, the Constitutional Court judges said: “The irregularities and anomalies have been so widespread, systematic and the integrity of the results has been seriously compromised.”

With new pressure on commissioners of the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) to step down and questions around President Mutharika’s candidacy, analysts say the implementation of the court’s directive may be harder to swallow for the president.

Boniface Dulani from the Institute of Public Opinion and Research in Malawi said the Constitutional Court ruling left the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) leader weakened.

“If you go through the judgement, you will notice that the judges were thorough and chances of success on appeal are very slim,” Dr Dulani said.

“One of the biggest mistakes made by the president and the Malawi Electoral Commission was their failure to show up in court to defend their decisions. The Supreme Court does not entertain new witnesses and this will make the appeal very difficult,” he added.

Mgeme Kalilani, President Mutharika’s spokesperson, described the court ruling as a “serious miscarriage of justice and an attack on the foundations of the country’s democracy.”

That appeal could cut both ways, Dr Dulani said. In the event that the president’s appeal fails at the Supreme Court, he is likely to face pressure from within the DPP to pave the way for a new candidate. He said prospects were also high that the opposition will forge a formidable coalition against the incumbent after attempts to form an alliance ahead of last year’s elections failed at the last minute.

Mr Chilima, a former telecoms executive has already indicated that he is prepared to put his weight behind Mr Chakwera if an alliance is formed.

“The need to have alliances is there, this is very important,” he told journalists in Lilongwe on Wednesday. “I remain humble in my ambition, but firm in my desire to see a new Malawi. I pledge to play any part the people of Malawi give me in this third republic.”

Mr Chakwera, who leads the Malawi Congress Party, has also said he is ready to pave the way for a fresh candidate in the polls.

Analysts also felt that President Mutharika’s age would weigh against him if he decides to contest the polls.

“This is a man who will be turning 80 in June and is facing a rejuvenated opposition,” said Moses Phiri, an activist from Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial capital. “If he insists on standing as the DPP candidate he might face serious internal opposition because of the embarrassing court case and the protests where Malawians have clearly sent a message that they want change.”

Although President Mutharika, a law professor, is credited for spearheading Malawi’s economic revival, the DPP leader’s popularity has been waning due to rising poverty levels in the country.

Malawi remains one of the world’s poorest countries.

The historic ruling by the Constitutional Court was the first time a presidential election had been challenged in court in Malawi since the country’s Independence from Britain in 1964.

The Southern African Development Community, which endorsed the outcome of the May 2019 polls, commended the court for “upholding the Malawian constitution.” SADC pledged to support Malawi to organise the fresh elections.

Meanwhile, pressure is mounting on the MEC chairperson Jane Ansah to step down following the Constitutional Court ruling.

Ms Ansah had promised to resign if the court found that the commission was responsible for chaos that characterised last year’s elections.

“While the court case was not about her as MEC Chairperson, the decision by the Constitutional Court to nullify election results inextricably links her and MEC commissioners to gross incompetence in the manner they handled the elections,” wrote Lowani Mtonga in Nyasa Times, a local daily newspaper.

The Constitutional Court had ruled that the MEC breached Malawi’s constitution and electoral processes.

The Human Rights Defenders Coalition, which helped to organise the post-election protests that paralysed the southern African country, has threatened to resume demonstrations unless the MEC commissions resigned.

The Constitutional Court ordered Malawi’s Parliament to reconvene within 21 days to prepare for fresh elections. While the law does not stop a commissioner from resigning, the assumption from the judges’ verdict is that the very commissioners were tasked with redoing the elections.

Jimmy Kainja, an academic at the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College, however said reforming the electoral body would be a priority.

“Restructuring of the electoral commission is likely to be the key point given its role in overseeing the nullified elections,” Mr Kainja said in an analysis of the outcome of the poll petition published by African Arguments. “The president retains the power to appoint the MEC chairperson, who is then approved by Parliament.”

“But it is unlikely that any of the existing top electoral officials will be returned given their past performance and the level of public anger with the body,” he added.

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