Malawi heading for another election crisis

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Malawi is just emerging from one election crisis. But is it about to be plunged into another/? Jeffrey Smith investigates …

In a few months, on July 2, the citizens of Malawi will once again queue to vote in a presidential election. This rerun of the May 2019 poll was recently ordered by the country’s Constitutional Court, which annulled last year’s results due to widespread irregularities, including ballot tampering and tally sheets with entire sections blotted out or suspiciously altered with a now infamous correction fluid known locally as ‘tippex.’ The historic verdict handed down by Malawi’s judges – who did so under immense pressure and bribery attempts – marked the first time that a presidential election had been challenged on legal grounds since the country achieved independence over half a century ago. What is more, it was only the second vote result to be cancelled in Africa after the August 2017 presidential election in Kenya.

After narrowly winning the now cancelled 2019 poll, incumbent President Peter Mutharika – who has been called out for increasing repression in the country – is preparing to rig the vote in his favor again. He certainly has additional factors to be nervous about this time around. One reason for his concern is that he will now face an opposition alliance, formed last week by the country’s biggest pro-democracy parties, which, coincidentally, were behind the lawsuit that prompted the election do-over. In 2019, the two main opposition parties won 55% of the vote, so it is implausible that Mutharika could manage to win free and fair contest.

Among the more concerning developments in Malawi has been the evident clampdown on civil society, including a targeted attack on the country’s most respected human rights activists, including Gift Trapence and Reverend McDonald Sembereka, both of whom were vocal critics of last year’s election. These men were arrested and detained earlier this month on the basis that they planned to protest outside the state capitol (in other words, having the audacity to exercise their constitutional rights to public assembly). Meanwhile, local authorities have unequivocally turned a blind eye to ruling party leaders, including President Mutharika himself, who have made repeated public threats against Malawi’s human rights community.

Additionally, Mutharika has rotated senior police officers to shore up their partisan loyalty; he has sacked the head of the military, perhaps as retribution for being “too sympathetic” to protesters; ruling party officials have also violated judicial independence by applying undue pressure on the Supreme Court judges who will soon hear a government appeal to July’s election rerun; and the president has also refused to reform the electoral commission and has failed to respond to growing calls to replace the officials who botched last year’s vote.

Overall, members of Malawi’s ruling party – and close political allies of the president – have taken a page straight from the autocrat’s playbook, blaming the country’s rising ills on the international community, with some officials claiming that nefarious outside actors are bent on instigating “regime change.” And relatedly, there are now more pressing concerns that Malawi’s ruling cabal are cynically using the COVID-19 pandemic as an expedient excuse to further entrench their hold on power ahead of July’s vote.

We have seen this pattern of behavior before. And we know why Mutharika, and autocratic leaders like him, undertake these sorts of actions. One eerily comparable example was Kenya in 2007. In advance of that country’s presidential elections, then President Mwai Kibaki, like Mutharika today, stubbornly refused to undertake the necessary electoral reforms that would ensure a credible vote; he shored up his control over the army and the country’s security forces, including shrewdly moving police officers around the country to ensure their loyalty while also guaranteeing they wouldn’t be in position to fire on their “own people”; and he made illegal judicial nominations to stack the courts and attorney general’s office to do his partisan bidding. These preparations ultimately allowed Kibaki to retain control of the country and rig the election in his favor. When the post-election dust had settled, over 1,000 people were dead and Kenyan democracy – then nascent, but hopeful – was dealt a staggering, near knockout blow that the country is still recuperating from.

It is unlikely that the carnage in Kenya will be replicated in Malawi. A critical difference here is that Malawi does not have the same ethnic tensions nor its unregulated militias running rampant. However, Mutharika’s preparations are decidedly undemocratic – they are clearly meant to tilt the election in his favor and to contain dissent, seemingly at all costs. The country is thus moving closer to conflict, daily and incrementally.

The warning signs in Malawi are there. They are clear. And the international community, including Malawi’s major development partners like the United States, have been relatively quiet. A single, wholly timid statement is not enough. It is time for global and regional leaders to raise their voices, together, in a concerted effort to nudge Malawi back onto its prior democratic path. We cannot sit idly by while a corrupt government plans to blatantly rig another election – especially when we, the taxpayers, may end up paying for some of it.

Failing to act now in Malawi will send a lurid siren call to other would-be autocrats that they can willingly subvert the will of their people and plant the inevitable seeds of future instability. This outcome is unacceptable.


Jeffrey Smith is the Founding Director of Vanguard Africa. You can follow him and Vanguard Africa on Twitter here: @Smith_JeffreyT, @VanguardAfrica

This article first appeared at Vanguard Africa

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