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Malawians elected a new president in Tuesday’s historic election

Independent judges and street protests paved the way for the ouster of the unpopular incumbent.

- June 27, 2020

Millions of Malawians cast their vote to elect a new president in Tuesday’s historic election. This was a do-over election ordered by Malawi’s Constitutional Court, which ruled in February to overturn the May 2019 presidential elections and bring about fresh polling.

Incumbent president Peter Mutharika of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) lost to Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), the party that ruled during the dictatorship from 1964 to 1994.

Mutharika received only 39.4 percent of the vote while Chakwera received 58.6 percent — a majority of the vote, which rules out the need for a runoff election. Here’s what you need to know about the special election and how it is changing politics in Malawi.

Court rulings and street protests led to historic elections

Malawi’s 2020 election was a rerun of the presidential poll held in May 2019. The Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) declared Mutharika the winner of the 2019 race, reporting that he won 38 percent of the vote, while Chakwera came second with 35 percent. Both Chakwera and fellow opposition candidate Saulos Chilima appealed the May 2019 presidential election outcome in Malawi’s courts.

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Since the MEC announcement, Malawians have regularly protested in the streets of multiple cities. Consistent among their complaints was that the MEC mismanaged the 2019 election and that the declared result was not a true reflection of the wishes of the people. Protesters called for the resignation of MEC chair Jane Ansah, who stepped down in May 2020.

On Feb. 3, Malawi’s Constitutional Court made history as the second court in Africa to have nullified a presidential election and called for fresh elections (the first was Kenya in 2017). Mutharika and the MEC then appealed the ruling to Malawi’s Supreme Court, which upheld the decision. The subsequent elections held this past Tuesday are the first in Africa when an incumbent president has lost in a court-ordered rerun election.

Malawi’s political landscape has already changed

The most significant long-term consequence of the Constitutional Court’s February ruling, however, was the majority requirement to win the presidency. Until the February court ruling, Malawi had used a simple plurality rule to determine presidential election victors. The Constitutional Court ruling stated that the MEC should have been using the 50 percent + 1 rule to determine winners.

As the May 2019 elections showed, even unpopular incumbents like Mutharika can keep their offices if electoral victory requires only a plurality of support and the opposition is divided. The court decision on the majority threshold encouraged pre-electoral alliances between parties in the lead-up to the recent election.

Both Mutharika and Chakwera chose running mates from other political parties. Mutharika picked former parliamentarian Atupele Muluzi, who unsuccessfully ran for president in 2019 as the nominee from the United Democratic Front (UDF) party, originally led by his father, Bakili Muluzi, who was president from 1994 to 2004.

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Chakwera’s running mate was current vice president Chilima, who ran unsuccessfully in 2019 as the presidential candidate for the United Transformation Movement party. After a falling out with Mutharika and the DPP, Chilima formed UTM, but maintained his position as vice president until Mutharika was declared the winner of the 2019 election and Chakwera was succeeded by Mutharika’s then-running mate Everton Chimulirenji. The vice presidency reverted back to Chilima in February 2020, as ordered by the court’s nullification of the 2019 election results.

A pre-election poll suggested Mutharika would lose to Chakwera. The poll, funded by the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) and conducted by the Institute for Public Opinion Research (IPOR), surveyed 1,346 adult Malawians via in-person interviews between May 23 and June 5.

In the nationally representative survey, 50.9 percent of respondents registered to vote reported that they intended to vote for Chakwera, compared to only 33.3 percent who said they would vote for Mutharika (9.6 percent of those polled were undecided and 3.9 percent refused to name their preferred candidate).

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Covid-19 may have kept turnout low, but election day was peaceful

IPOR fielded a small team of 52 domestic election observers, dispatched to 26 of Malawi’s administrative districts and all four major cities to observe voting on election day and the tallying of votes when polls closed. The IPOR team did not observe any major irregularities or tension at polling locations. Although the ruling party has claimed some of its election monitors were targeted with violence, the MEC, Malawi Defence Force and Malawi Police Service have said that no intimidation or violence marred the voting process.

Of the 6,859,570 Malawians registered to vote in the 2020 elections, 64.8 percent voted. This is down from the May 2019 elections, when 74.4 percent of registered voters participated.

Some Malawians may have avoided the polls because of the growing covid-19 pandemic. By election day, there were 803 documented cases and 11 recorded coronavirus deaths in Malawi.

Confirmed covid-19 cases in Malawi as of June 25, 2020.

Figure courtesy of Our World in Data. Data from European CDC.
Confirmed covid-19 cases in Malawi as of June 25, 2020.

Figure courtesy of Our World in Data. Data from European CDC.

While IPOR observers noted that many MEC officials at polling stations were wearing masks as a preventive measure against covid-19, very few voters were wearing masks. Some polling stations had hand-washing facilities with soap, but this was not universal and usage rate was mixed. Similarly, some voter queues practiced social distancing, while others did not. It is too soon to tell whether the elections as well as the crowded campaign events leading up to them will serve to spread the novel coronavirus.

One important consequence of the pandemic was the absence of international election observers. However, given the lack of condemnation from international observers at the outcome of the flawed May 2019 elections, it’s not clear that international observers are necessary for election legitimacy in the Malawian context.

Domestic groups — namely civil society organizations, a coordinated opposition, protesters in the street and independent judges in Malawi’s high courts — appear to have sufficiently safeguarded Malawi’s democracy. Their actions and this week’s elections give Malawians hope for democracy, even as so much in the world seems uncertain.

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Boniface Dulani (@bonidulani) is a senior lecturer in the Department of Political and Administrative Studies at the University of Malawi and Afrobarometer’s Director of Surveys.