In Malawi Elections, Civil Society Helps Boost Credibility

Did Malawians get the government and leaders they deserve?

As Malawians recover from an election high from the May 20 poll, the big question is: Did they get the government and leaders they deserve? In other words, do the election outcomes reflect the popular will? Malawians should also be concerned about the incoming administration’s capacity to deliver social and economic development in the context of a highly polarized and unstable political environment.

A new president by the name of Peter Mutharika has taken over stewardship of the state from former president Joyce Banda. In the wake of the results of May 20, this southern African nation of some 17 million people teetered on the brink of a full-blown political crisis as contestation for political power quickly moved from the ballot box to the courts. 

Before the ink had dried on the ballot papers, Banda was alleging massive vote rigging.  She proceeded to annul the election, claiming to be exercising executive power constitutionally vested in her, and ordered fresh elections be held within 90 days.  The High Court ruled her proclamation unconstitutional, triggering a legal ping pong between the political parties. 

The losing candidates sought an order to compel the Electoral Commission to do a recount, while Mutharika sought and won an order compelling the Commission to complete voter tabulation and announce the results.  In the end, the Commission completed tallying the votes and announced Mutharika the winner, having garnered 36.4 percent of the votes cast. 

It is commendable that the crisis was dealt with in Malawi’s constitutional and legal framework.  We have seen serious outbreaks of violence on account of disputed electoral outcomes elsewhere on the continent.

Questions are being asked in Africa about whether elections are a viable process through which citizens are able to exercise meaningful choice about who governs and how they are governed.  While the exuberance that accompanied the end of one party dictatorship in Malawi in 1994 has waned, a 70.6 percent voter turnout is a decent indicator of an electorate that still believes in human suffrage. 

The assumption is that a government that comes to power through a credible electoral process is likely to enjoy high levels of legitimacy and be accountable to the electorate, and citizens will have a better chance of exercising popular control over executive power and decision making. Twenty years after return to multiparty politics, Malawians yearn to see a significant improvement in the quality of their lives commensurate with the political freedoms they have hitherto enjoyed. 

This being Malawi’s fifth election since return to plural politics, one would have thought that the country would be better prepared to conduct a credible electoral process.  A number of factors contributed to the turn of events, including:

  • Malawi’s electoral system design (the candidate receiving the plurality of votes wins);
  • the capacity of the Commission to manage the process;
  • voting trends that track regional and ethnic allegiances; and
  • the closely contested nature of the 2014 election. 

In the end, the contest was truly a zero-sum game. Observers in previous elections have expressed concerns about the electoral system and recommended that reforms be prioritized. In all the elections except in 2009, the elected president has governed with a minority vote—in the 2014 elections, Mutharika’s 36.4 percent is less than the opposition’s combined vote of 63.6 percent. 

The state of preparedness of the election management body has always been of serious concern.  Going into the 2014 elections it was clear that the Electoral Commission was struggling to get its act together, especially with regard to finalizing the voters’ roll.  The start to polling on May 20 was chaotic—only 25 percent of stations had managed to open by 9 am, when polling was to have commenced at 6 am.  There were stories of folks queuing as early as 4 am and only voting at 2 pm. 

Scores of polling centers did not have adequate materials such as voter registers, ballot papers, ballot boxes, seals, ink, and pens.  Voting had to be extended in some polling stations beyond the 6 pm closing time to make up for the late opening.  In a few stations, voting had to be halted after frustrated voters rioted.  Voting was later resumed and went on for a couple of days after the official election day.  Despite these challenges, most observer groups concluded that the challenges had not been fatal to the credibility of the process.

Domestic election monitoring played an important role in the context of the Malawi elections.  Civil society organizations were better coordinated in their engagement with and response to the 2014 elections.  Under the umbrella of the Malawi Elections Information Centre, civil society came together to observe, analyze data, and intervene.  The Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa co-funded the Information Centre together with Hivos, the Dutch development organization. 

Through this situation room, voters were able to verify their registration status by texting their details via free sms. Citizen journalists reported election-related incidents also using a dedicated sms line.  Some 4,300 observers were trained and deployed to cover the 4,500 polling centers. 

On polling day observers were able to text their encoded reports to data officers sitting at the situation room, in Blantyre.  Data officers processed the data and provided it to a team of experts who conveyed their analysis to the situation room task force.  The task force, comprising civil society representatives, would issue press statements, hold press briefings, and engage with key stakeholders such as the Electoral Commission, political parties, and development partners. 

It is likely that Malawi will hit more political turbulence in the months ahead.  For starters it will be interesting to see how the corruption and treason cases against Mutharika will be dealt with. While he has offered an olive branch to his political opponents, he has also hinted that those who have broken the law will face the full course of justice.  Speculation is that this could be a veiled threat to Joyce Banda and her associates. 

The outcome of the parliamentary contest is a hung legislature. Independent parliamentary candidates won the most seats (52) out of the 193 seats that were up for grabs.  Mutharika’s Democratic Progressive Party has 50 members of parliament, followed by the Malawi Congress Party with 48.  In third place is Joyce Banda’s People’s Party with 26. 

There will be intense horse trading and coalition formation as soon as parliament is sworn in.  This will take away the lawmakers’ and government’s focus from the urgent task of making the country functional once again.  There is a critical need for the incoming government to quickly create a conducive environment for investment and development funds to start flowing again—a monumental task in the current political set up.

As election observers, development partners, and other electoral practitioners pack up their bags and plot their next intervention in the next challenging election in the region (such as Mozambique), they should be mindful not to uproot and leave Malawi in a lurch, only to descend on the country during the 2019 elections. There are aspects of the 2014 elections that were not properly managed and need to be addressed. 

Rather than forcing electoral assistance into project cycles, development partners should locate assistance in the electoral cycle—and in the case of Malawi, that cycle starts now.  If there is a genuine desire to improve the integrity of elections and give true meaning to “the will of the people,” those in the business of supporting credible elections need to convene now to plan for 2019.            

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