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  • Olivia Vail

Malawi's Election Shock - The rise of Lazarus Chakwera

In 2017 Kenya annulled an election. Now Malawi has done the same and it is only the second African country to do so. Following the annulment, in the rerun election, Lazarus Chakwera triumphed against the sitting president of Malawi, Peter Mutharika, in a surprising turn of events.

In May 2019, Malawi’s incumbent Mutharika won the vote. 13 months later in an historic ruling, Malawi’s constitutional court annulled the result, citing “wide-spread, systematic and grave irregularities”. The now infamous fact emerged that TipEx was used in the first election when counting votes, with votes for the opposition literally being painted out of existence.

Chakwera led a coalition of nine opposition parties to an eventual victory, aided by a change in the electoral system. It is no longer First Past The Post (where a candidate needs a simple majority to win) to one which insists on an outright majority. At the national level, typically four national parties compete, making it rare to win an outright majority. The Judiciary’s insistence that an outright majority was the condition for election encouraged cross-party cooperation to a much greater degree than before, and Chakwera succeeded in sufficiently uniting separate opposition groups into a coherent enough alliance that voters had enough confidence in, thus delivering him a 59% vote share.

This election is unusual because the opposition succeeded in overturning a corrupt vote and ousted the incumbent. In Kenya for instance, the first election was annulled however Kenyatta (the incumbent) won in the polls again the second time.

Why was this annulment and second vote able to happen?

Malawi has been able to maintain checks and balances on the power of the president (executive) which allows for it to be more democratic. For example, Mutharika, the incumbent president, was unable to rely on the army (the Malawi Defence Force: MDF). They were instead protecting the protesting citizens and the judiciary.

A credit to the judiciary

An independent judiciary is vital for holding the executive in check. In part thanks to the army, Malawi’s legal system and its judiciary has proven it can push back against executive power and resist attempts to derail it. The past 15 months has seen Murtharika try to overturn the supreme Court’s ruling that a second election should take place. He also appealed against the change to a majority voting system. The Supreme Court rejected this. 10 days before the second vote Mutharika attempted to enforce the Chief Justice to retire prematurely, yet the High Court successfully blocked the attempt.

Malawi’s judiciary could have ‘played it safe’ and decided not to push back against the first election results. They could have been too wary of judicial over-reach and instead opted for self-censorship. Instead they did not and it has benefitted Malawi’s citizens enormously. Importantly, the court did not rule that Muthirika should not have won the first election, simply that there was clear evidence of vote tampering and so a second poll was required. This sends a clear message: only high quality, trustworthy elections will be validated.

It bodes well for other countries which have struggled to hold elections that the people consider legitimate.

What does the new government face?

Lazarus Chakwera, Malawi’s new president has scaled back his inauguration plans and cancelled independence day events in the wake of Covid-19. Malawi is also in a balance of payments crisis with a large current account deficit. This means its imports are far exceeding its exports and it is struggling to finance this. Persistent deficits increase its debt. Tourism this year will struggle hugely. The coalition which won the election must see if it can navigate these challenges. If it fails then the electorate will lose faith in this government and the reasoning for the judiciary to insist on impartial elections may suffer.

A report from the World Bank in 2017 suggests urbanisation will be an important next step for Malawi’s economy, helping to create more jobs in cities and towns, shifting reliance away from low paid rural work. Wealth creates wealth. As people in cities become wealthier this spurs new housing and building projects which provides more jobs. Malawi’s parents can invest in better education for their children if they themselves can start earning higher salaries.

These opportunities are matched with challenges around better property tax regulation, improving local city councils and the cash flow to them and not simply ‘moving poverty’ from rural to urban environments. If lots of people move to cities and towns then these areas should expand to accommodate them.

The second election has not been subject to the same levels of corruption and vote tampering as in 2019 and offers a reassuring suggestion that it is possible to establish democratic voting methods offering citizens a greater say in who rules them. This gives the leaders of Malawi greater legitimacy to carry out policies and election manifesto promises. The challenge remains as to whether they are able to deliver in the current economic environment.

Image - Unsplash.

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