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Malawi at the crossroads

Malawi's re-instated Vice-President Saulos Chilima speaks at a press conference at his private residence in Lilongwe on February 5, 2020 following the Lilongwe Constitutional Court's decision on February 3, 2020, to nullify presidential results of the May 21, 2019 Tripartite Elections.

Malawi's re-instated Vice-President Saulos Chilima speaks at a press conference at his private residence in Lilongwe on February 5, 2020 following the Lilongwe Constitutional Court's decision on February 3, 2020, to nullify presidential results of the May 21, 2019 Tripartite Elections.   | Photo Credit: AFP

The Nairobi and Lilongwe rulings inspire optimism about the continent’s democratic future

The annulment of last May’s presidential elections by Malawi’s constitutional court could have far-reaching consequences for the continent’s democratic process, often marred by controversy over the political longevity of several leaders. Lilongwe’s unanimous verdict has imposed a return to the status quo prior to the polls and a re-run of the vote within 150 days. The decision also means that President Peter Mutharika’s former vice-president Saulos Chilima is to be reinstated in that position. Mr. Chilima finished a distant third in the May contest, heading the United Transformation Movement. The sensational ruling in the southern African state comes less than three years since the top court in Nairobi invalidated the re-election of President Uhuru Kenyatta and ordered a repoll within 60 days.

Many irregularities

Mr. Mutharika’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has been found complicit in widespread and systematic irregularities, which the Justices have opined compromised the integrity of the polls. Directly implicating the electoral commission, they noted that three-fourths of the tally sheets were not audited and correction fluid had been used extensively to tinker with the ballot, dubbed the Tipp-Ex election. Curiously, results were declared last May despite more than a hundred complaints of poll fraud registered with the Malawian electoral commission. The legal reversal is equally an embarrassment for international poll monitors who gave a clean chit to the authorities.

The court’s other recommendation that parliament replace the electoral commission also has a ring of familiarity with the Kenyan situation following the 2017 polls. On that occasion, the opposition boycotted the October re-run, objecting to the absence of meaningful reforms to the electoral body that left President Kenyata’s ruling party to claim victory without a serious challenge.

The Lilongwe court was evidently troubled by the meagre proportion of the vote secured by Mr. Mutharika. Under the current first-past-the-post system, Mr. Mutharika was declared winner, with just over 38% of the vote, against 35% for his rival Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party. The court has therefore proposed a radical reform, requiring the nation’s president to be elected in a runoff, if the winning candidate fails to garner more than 50% of the popular vote in the first instance. Such an alteration could potentially render Malawi’s multi-party system far more credible and genuinely competitive.

The President’s narrow margin of victory in a multi-cornered race, as well as the ruling party’s poor showing in the National Assembly, winning just 63 out of the 193 seats, encouraged Mr. Chakwera and Mr. Chilima to challenge the results. Mr. Mutharika’s 2014 first term election was similarly disputed by his predecessor Joyce Banda, but eventually resolved in his favour. The 79-year-old President’s second-term bid last year was also resisted by sections within the DPP, including the widow of former President Bingu wa Mutharika, the incumbent’s brother.

A crucial test

The recent legal setback is therefore likely to invigorate the President’s detractors. Meanwhile, Mr. Mutharika, a former professor of law, has said that he will appeal the verdict, describing it as “a serious miscarriage of justice”. The judgment also seems to have prompted calls for the courts to revisit the results of the National Assembly polls. The coming few weeks will thus prove to be a crucial test of judicial independence and legislative authority over the political executive in Malawi.

In the tense atmosphere following the historic 2017 verdict, an official in Kenya’s electoral body fled the country, expressing doubts about a free and fair poll. Malawians would be wise to exercise caution and restraint in the circumstances. It is easy to exaggerate the importance of the recent legal landmark, given the widespread prevalence of one-party dominance in Africa. But the Nairobi and Lilongwe rulings inspire optimism about the continent’s democratic future.

garimella.subramaniam@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Apr 1, 2020 11:27:37 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/malawi-at-the-crossroads/article30776878.ece

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