Malawi’s Re-Run Election is Lesson for African Opposition

The overturning of the result in the fresh presidential contest sets a bold precedent for the continent, as a process built upon the resilience of democratic institutions and the collective spirit of opposition.

Expert comment Updated 6 October 2020 Published 1 July 2020 3 minute READ
Lazarus Chakwera, leader of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) arriving at the Mtandire suburb of the capital Lilongwe for an election rally. Photo by AMOS GUMULIRA/AFP via Getty Images.

Lazarus Chakwera, leader of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) arriving at the Mtandire suburb of the capital Lilongwe for an election rally. Photo by AMOS GUMULIRA/AFP via Getty Images.

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

The initial May 2019 vote had narrowly returned incumbent Peter Mutharika to the presidency. But in February 2020 a landmark ruling by Malawi’s constitutional court annulled the result citing ‘widespread, systematic and grave’ irregularities, including the now-infamous use of corrective fluid in vote tallying, and the Malawi Electoral Commission’s (MEC) failure to address complaints before announcing results. New elections were ordered within 150 days.

In a decisive contrast with the previous year, the fresh polls on 23 June saw the coming together of Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and running mate Saulos Chilima of the United Transformation Movement (UTM) to head a coalition of nine opposition parties - having fiercely competed as the leading challengers previously.

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.

In tandem with a slick digital campaign, the new alliance travelled widely to hold rallies across what is one of the world’s youngest countries, while the elderly Mutharika remained largely confined to the capital. It would be a strategy that ultimately delivered Chakwera to the presidency, polling 58 per cent of votes to Mutharika’s 39.

Political opposition elsewhere in Africa should take note from Malawi’s coalition - dialogue, not division, can offer a genuine path to change, especially in those countries with less favourable institutional conditions. Neighbouring Zambia would certainly do well to heed this example ahead of a pivotal election of its own in 2021.

A victory built on institutional precedent

Yet the story here is not only about throwing out an incumbent: Malawians had already done so twice before, rejecting sitting presidents at the polls in 1994 and 2014. 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.

The new result did not arise as the foregone conclusion of a judicial miracle. Rather, throughout the re-run process Malawi has had to repeatedly draw upon the strength of its broad-based institutional foundations. The image of the constitutional court judges arriving to deliver their annulment verdict in February wearing bulletproof vests under their robes was a stark reminder that this was never the easy route to take.

In contrast to many other African states, Mutharika was unable to call upon military support as the Malawi Defence Forces (MDF) had moved to shield protesting citizens and protect the judiciary since the 2019 election. The MDF also had previous form in this respect, having defended then-vice president Joyce Banda’s constitutional right to assume the presidency after the incumbent’s death in 2012.

And this institutional resilience from the army would facilitate a smooth and mostly peaceful election process during the re-run, despite Mutharika attempts to intervene by replacing the MDF’s commander and his deputy in March 2020.

Just ten days before the fresh vote the Mutharika government switched focus back to the country’s legal system by attempting to enforce the premature retirement of Malawi’s chief justice, only to be blocked by the high court. Even as unofficial tallies trickled in, Mutharika’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) demanded the MEC annul the result: claiming their monitors were intimidated in MCP strongholds, and requesting unlawful access to scrutinise null and void votes.

Headed by a new chairperson, this time the MEC displayed enormous patience in the verification process and openly tackled complaints, now mainly from the DPP. On social media, Malawians celebrated the contrast between images of tally sheets from 2019 and the re-run.

Writing a new chapter

There are lessons here too for international partners. 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 - while also helping promoting early dialogue among opposition parties.

At a time of pressure for UK engagement to offer clear strategic value, the impact of less easily quantifiable forms of influence should not be overlooked, especially as international observer missions effectively went missing in the discredited 2019 election. Preliminary statements back then from the Commonwealth, European Union, African Union and Southern African Development Community (SADC) struck a mostly congratulatory tone and were non-committal on the issues that would prove decisive in the court ruling. None went on to release their final reports.

Malawi must now start to move beyond election mode. Though COVID-19 cases remain low by global standards, a budget already heavily dependent on foreign aid and hampered by 18 months of political uncertainty will be slashed further by the pandemic’s impact. The IMF has predicted GDP growth of just 1% in 2020, down from a pre-coronavirus projection of 5%.

As it inherits a major balance of payments crisis, mounting debt and with no tourism revenue to fall back on, the new government will need to use its political capital to push for immediate reform. But it must not forget the core tenet of its campaign. The coalition that defeated Mutharika united the MCP’s rural support base with the middle-class urban following of the UTM. This spirit of unity and inclusion must be expanded and focus on long-term recovery. On this undertaking – unlike the polls – there will be no opportunity for a re-run.