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Malawians relieved after court voids presidential vote

Ineke Mules
February 4, 2020

Malawi's highest court has declared the results of the May 2019 presidential election invalid after noting serious irregularities. Voters are hopeful the ruling will set a precedent for a stronger democratic process.

Opposition leader Lazarus Chakwera during a march for the Malawi Congress Party
Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Gumulira

Malawians have reacted with joy and optimism to the Constitutional Court's annulment on Monday of the poll and ordered a fresh election. President Peter Mutharika, 79, was officially re-elected last May with 38.5% of the vote, however runner-up Lazarus Chakwera, who lost by just 159,000 votes, took the matter to court alongside fellow opposition candiate, former vice president Saulos Chilima, after alleging the electoral process was full of irregularities.

The case was closely watched in the country over six months of hearings, with many Malawians tuning into radio broadcasts for hours on end as witnesses presented evidence of alleged-vote rigging. Lawyers for the ruling candidates argued that correction fluid — more specifically the brand Tipp-Ex — had been used on some of the forms sent in from polling stations. There were also mathematical errors in a few cases.

Several schools and businesses closed in the week leading up to the final verdict due to fears of violence. The ruling marks the first time a presidential election has been challenged on legal grounds in Malawi since its independence from Britain in 1964. Judges have ordered new elections to be held within 150 days.

Read more: Who are Malawi's top presidential contenders?

People line up to vote in Malawi's May 2019 presidential election
People line up to vote in Malawi's May 2019 presidential electionImage: AFP/A. Gumulira

A welcome ruling

Residents took to the streets of Lilongwe immediately after the ruling, chanting anti-Mutharika slogans and setting off fireworks, with the celebrations spilling over into Tuesday.

For many Malawians, the court's decision come as a huge relief, with many unable to operate their businesses during the wave of unrest and anti-government protests following last's year's disputed election. Others were excited about what the ruling means for the future of the country.

"This is defining moment for our history, as well as for our growing democracy," Lilongwe resident Geoffrey Kawanga told DW. "Despite all the problems and all the bad news, there are some noble men and women out there who will not trade of their conscious at any cost."

Members of the opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP) have continued to celebrate since the ruling on Monday evening. Director of the MCP youth branch, Richard Chimwendo, told DW he was thankful for the judges' ruling.

"We thank our judges for giving us this victory, for making sure that there is justice," he said. "We believe that [when] Lazarus Chakwera becomes the president of this country, we will be liberated from poverty and injustices."

Mutharika and his Democratic Progressives Party (DPP) have consistently dismissed uncertainties over the official results.

Malawian academic and sociopolitical blogger, Jimmy Kainja, told the DW the ruling was not completely unexpected.

"The ruling does not come as a surprise for those who have been following the case closely," he said. "They would say there was tangible evidence to argue that there were a lot of irregularities."

Malawi President Peter Mutharika
Incumbent President Peter Mutharika took 38.57% of the vote before the election results were annulledImage: picture-alliance/AP/T. Chikondi

Malawi's democracy put to the test

Malawi has been trying to consolidate its multiparty democratic system ever since the end of the dictatorship of Hastings Banda in 1994.

Mustafa Hussein, a political analyst from the University of Malawi, told DW the ruling represented a milestone for democracy in the country and sets a positive precedent for future elections.

"It means a lot to Malawians," he said. "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."

Kainja agrees that the ruling will prove to be "a game-changer in [Malawi's] political development" and hopes that some of the more nuanced points on Malawi's electoral systems highlighted by the judges will be taken into account in the next election.

"Our understanding of democracy in Malawi is that we use first-past-the-post," he said. "But the court has said, no. The winner needs to get 50% of the vote or more. So what that means is that there will now be more alliances and political maneuvering. So the judgment in that way has changed the fundamental aspect of elections in Malawi."

Thousands of opposition party supporters took part in protest marches following the disputed election in May 2019
Thousands of opposition party supporters took part in protest marches following the disputed election in May 2019Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Gumulira

Kanja also says the process has renewed the public's trust in Malawi's judiciary, particularly when it comes to people's right to demonstrate.

"What we can take away from those elections now is that the judiciary always defended and protected the law," he said. "The court always defended the people's right to demonstrate."

However, many of the demonstrations held since May's election led to violence and deadly confrontations.

The international community responded positively to the ruling. In a statement, the European Union (EU) said it "stands ready to accompany Malawi on the way ahead in view of preserving the unity and democratic credentials of the country."

Mutharika will remain president until the new election, as he was in power before the last election.

Read more: Female power in Malawi

Electoral commission under scrutiny

Notably, the ruling focused on the actions of the Malawi Electoral Commission who was responsible for the irregularities, as opposed to accusation of corruption or rigging by the candidates running in the election. Up until now, there has been no founded evidence of corruption against the ruling or opposition parties.

The Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) has demanded the resignation of the electoral commission chairperson, Jane Ansah.Kanja says the main focus now, is how the electoral commission will need to change before fresh elections are held.

"The immediate issue of concern should be how the electoral board is going to be reconstituted," he said. "So there will be a meeting in the coming days to decide the way forward, as to how those elections will be conducted."

Mirriam Kaliza in Lilongwe contributed to this article.