Last week, the Malawi Election Commission (MEC) finally released a list of contesting parliamentary candidates for this year’s elections. No fewer than 1,331 hopefuls will compete for only 193 parliamentary seats. Of those 1,331 candidates, 501 do not belong to a party and will compete as independents — 84 more independent candidates than in the last Malawian election.
Why the surge in independent candidates? It’s not, as some may suspect, that Malawi’s political elites are rejecting political parties. Rather, it reflects a long and controversial primary seasons, fueled by conflict, corruption and violence.
Observing primaries in Malawi
Malawians recently finished a four-month process of selecting their local and parliamentary party candidates, a process involving hundreds of thousands of Malawians. In the primaries, local party members in all of Malawi’s 193 constituencies get to choose among their local candidates. The number of delegates in primaries varies from party to party and constituency to constituency, but it is not unusual for local primaries to include a few thousand delegates. Voting is carried out through a controversial electoral system, where delegates line up behind their favorite candidate. This year, parties were engaged in a drawn-out process with different constituencies arranging primaries on separate days over several months.
To learn more about these primaries, we deployed monitors to directly observe the procedures in 100 randomly selected constituencies all around the country.
Sadly, our conclusion was not entirely uplifting. Primary elections in Malawi were seriously affected by manipulation and conflict. Many losing candidates did not accept the result; in many constituencies, parties had to repeat their primaries — in some constituencies, several times. Many of the losing candidates will now run as independents.
Why are Malawi’s primaries so contentious, and what consequences may the controversial primaries have for the campaign?
Candidate selection in Africa
Candidate selection in much of Africa is controversial, particularly in “safe” districts, where successful primary candidates are likely to go on to win general elections. Controversies often erupt over the rules for candidate selection.
Even more troubling, African selection processes often do not follow internal party rules. A recent study of candidate selection in Africa estimates that of the African parties studied, 80 percent either have no clear rules for candidate selection or, more often, have rules that they regularly disregard, as elites push their favored candidates.
Across the African continent, parties use many different procedures for candidate selection. Few arrange the kind of decentralized primaries that Malawian parties do, where local party members are involved in the selection of candidates. Those that do often experience controversy.
For instance, dominant parties such as Uganda’s National Resistance Movement (NRM), Kenya’s Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) and Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF have all experienced violence in primaries. Violence may happen as local supporters target supporters of rivaling candidates or even the candidates themselves.
Violence can also result from protests against national party elites. In several cases around the continent, local party members have attacked party headquarters, party officials, infrastructure or government offices to express their discontent with candidate selection. Research on Nigeria has suggested that more people die of intraparty violence than of violence between parties. In other countries, such as Ghana, research finds that primaries are high season for corruption and bribes. In Zambia, national party elites are known to disregard local selection committees’ candidate decisions and parachute in their own favorite candidates at the last minute.
International organizations focused on free and fair elections often overlook primaries
Although international groups have been focusing on electoral integrity, they rarely pay attention to how primaries get manipulated. In the Malawian primaries, for instance, our observers saw violence between supporters in many constituencies — although fortunately no deaths. For instance, supporters of different candidates clashed in primaries for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Chikwawa Central, the United Transformation Movement (UTM) in Ntcheu Bwanje and the United Democratic Front (UDF) in Balaka North constituencies. In many constituencies, candidates also complained about vote buying and inaccuracies in the vote count.
More than anything else, candidates from all major parties argued about which party members were eligible to vote. In the primaries, the eligible voters are representatives of “area committees” — a form of local party branch. But candidates were often quibbling about what area committees to recognize and whether certain delegates were actually representatives of those area committees. Parties have designed elaborate electoral systems, but usually lack the capacity to ensure that primaries actually follow these rules.
What may be the democratic consequences of Malawi’s flawed primaries?
The lack of integrity in Malawian party primaries may have several consequences for the upcoming election.
First, a high number of independents emerged from the contentious primary season. In the 2014 election, 27 percent of all MPs elected to parliament were independents — more than were elected from any party. Most of those had run in party primaries before running as independents — often believing that they had lost primaries because of corruption. Historically, independent MPs have often ended up defecting to the ruling party, bolstering the president’s already strong political position.
Second, poor quality primaries reduce women’s representation in parliament. That’s what we saw in the 2014 Malawi election, when the number of female MPs declined in comparison to the previous 2009 election. Out of the 32 women elected to parliament, 40 percent were independents. Research suggests that female candidates are disadvantaged when elections are plagued by corruption. Although there is a larger proportion of female candidates in the 2019 election than in 2014 — 23 percent compared with 20 percent — only 20.5 percent of the four major parties’ parliamentary candidates are women. That’s especially disappointing given an ambitious civil society campaign to increase female parliamentary representation to 50 percent.
Third, when disgruntled primary losers turn independent, primary conflicts can spill over to the general-election campaign. For instance, in 2014, supporters of the People’s Party (PP) in Karonga Central fought one another during the primaries. That continued during the general election. Organizations promoting electoral integrity in Malawi might wish to observe closely where primaries were characterized by high levels of conflict.
The need to strengthen electoral integrity in primaries
International organizations plan to invest considerable resources in strengthening the Malawi elections. But the party primaries remind us that parties that can’t carry out credible, internally democratic candidate selection make it harder to build strong African democracies.
Merete Bech Seeberg is an assistant professor at Aarhus University.
Michael Wahman is an assistant professor at Michigan State University.