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Malawi votes in historic election rerun

June 23, 2020

It's a significant day for sub-Saharan Africa: Malawi is repeating its presidential elections after months of protests. Could this be a milestone for democracy in a country plagued by corruption and poverty?

A voter casts their ballot in Blantyre, Malawi
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/T. Chikondi

Polls opened in Malawi on Tuesday morning and voters have been casting their ballots following the annulment of last year's presidential poll results. 

Crucially, today's election differs from last year's vote in that winner now needs to secure an absolute majority of 50% plus one vote, instead of being a first-past-post the system. 

This makes alliances even more important. 

Malawians line up to cast their votes in Blantyre, Malawi
Malawians brave the cold winter weather to vote for the country's presidentImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/T. Chikondi

The vote pits incumbent President Peter Mutharika against Lazarus Chakwera, who has the support of an opposition coalition, including the Malawi Congress Party and the United Transformation Movement. A third hopeful is little-known Peter Kuwani of the Mbakuwaku Movement for Development.

In May 2019, Mutharika thought he was the victor by a slim margin when he gained 38.6% of the vote ahead of Chakwera with 35% and Vice President Saulos Chilima with 20%.

However, Malawi's Constitutional Court annulled those results in February 2020, ruling that the 2019 vote showed "grave," "widespread" and "systematic" irregularities. This included tally sheets being daubed with correction fluid.

The court ordered a new vote to take place within 150 days. 

President Peter Mutharika
Peter Mutharika became Malawi's president in 2014Image: AFP/Getty Images

The Supreme Court subsequently upheld the Constitutional Court ruling, dismissing an appeal by the president and paving the way for Tuesday's polls. 

In delivering the verdict in May, Justice Frank Kapanda said the Supreme Court found the irregularities in the election "were not only serious but also troubling." The court also found that some of the 137 grounds in Mutharika's appeal were fictitious and embarrassing.

A milestone for democracy

The verdict reverberated through African politics. After Kenya in 2017, Malawi became the only the second country in sub-Saharan Africa to have presidential poll results set aside.

Political analyst Mustafa Hussein, an associate professor at the University of Malawi, told DW in February that the Constitutional Court ruling was a milestone for democracy in Malawi and set a positive precedent for future elections.

"It means a lot to Malawians," he told DW. "It means the vote should be respected… [It means] those responsible for administering elections need to follow the constitution and all the laws that govern elections. It's an important lesson to politicians that nobody is above the law."

Malawi heading in the right direction

Mutharika's election victory sparked months-long, at times, violent protests that left many properties destroyed and looted. The protesters were demanding the removal of the then-Electoral Commission chief Jane Ansah and her commissioners. 

Lazarus Chakwera, the president for Malawis main opposition Party, the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), and his election running mate, Saulos Klaus Chilima, Malawis incumbent Vice President and president for the United Transformation Movement (UTM), leave the Mount Soche Hotel while surrounded by a crowd of supporters in Blantyre.
Malawians have been demonstrating for months against the result of the presidential electionsImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Gumulira

The Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) has been spearheading various demonstrations demanding change in the country on behalf of Malawians since the May 19 elections. 

HRDC's Gift Trapence says the fresh elections are a clear indication the rule of law is in place in Malawi.

"We have seen our judiciary to be independent to make important decisions specifically on the elections," the HRDC leader told DW.

"Our democracy is maturing and Malawians are also empowered. They know their rights and people have been standing on the good side of democracy. So as a country, I think we are in the right direction."

Hope for the time after COVID-19

Malawians hope the new vote will bring change to the country of 18 million people, which is holding the election in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The country has officially recorded 592 cases of coronavirus and eight deaths, as of the morning of June 19. 

Malawi | Wahlkampf | Wahlen | Coronavirus | MCP | UTM
Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Gumulira

"Good things are coming because this government has spoiled everything," Malawian Owen Chimaliro told DW. "Everybody is crying. We are trying this and that but it is not helping, so now we are waiting for change from the government which is coming, and we have hope."

Malawian Gift Magunda agreed: "I am hopeful that when we vote again, the country will normalize and businesses will be in full operation. Maybe some of us who got our contracts terminated might get our jobs back."

'Impoverished, but not poor'

Presidential candidate Lazarus Chakwera told DW he is optimistic that the elections will usher in a new era for the country.  

"It is the people's hope that this country will be turned around and face a new direction as we build the new Malawi, a Malawi that everybody can enjoy and everybody can have what they need because they have been empowered to become a productive nation," he said. 

 Lazarus Chakwera, Malawi Congress Party
Lazarus Chakwera is running for office on TuesdayImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Gumulira

Malawi is struggling to fight poverty and corruption. It ranks 123 out of 189 on the Corruption Perceptions Index and 172 on the Human Development Index which analyzes inequality.

What is needed is a new style of leadership, Chakwera says, "Malawi is an impoverished nation. But it's not a poor nation. ... We need leadership which serves people rather than expects people to look up to them to be served."

Ballot papers, which were being printed in Dubai, arrived on Friday afternoon in the country and are on the way to their final destinations.

Now, Malawians only need to head to the polls to see whether the lessons learned from the 2019 election will result in free and fair elections on Tuesday.

Mirriam Kaliza and Josephine Mahachi contributed to this article.

DW - Silja Fröhlich
Silja Fröhlich is a German journalist and radio host.