Malawians went to the polls on Monday, June 23, to participate in the country’s presidential election rerun. Following accusations by the political opposition and civil activists of vote rigging in the May 2019 election, the Constitutional Court in February nullified the results citing massive irregularities, including the revelation that Tipp-Ex correction fluid was used to alter vote tallies. Incumbent president Peter Mutharika, who had won a second term, and the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) appealed the ruling, but the Supreme Court upheld the order for a rerun of the election.
Early results have started to come in, indicating it’s a close race
Despite present fears of COVID-19 spread, the turnout was high in the major cities of Blantyre, Lilongwe, Mzuza, and Zomba.
Early results have started to come in, indicating it’s a close race between Mutharika and his challenger, Lazarus Chakwera, head of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP). Unlike last year’s election, either candidate needs to earn more than 50 percent of the vote in order to avoid a runoff election.
Chakwera’s MCP has aligned itself with the United Transformation Movement, led by current vice-president Saoulos Chilima. The Democratic Progressive Party of Chakwera also formed an alliance with the United Democratic Front, led by the son of former president Bakili Muluzi.
A decision by the Parliamentary Legal Affairs Committee and the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) to schedule an election rerun for June 23 has been called into question by Attorney General Kalekeni Kaphale, who argued that a sitting of parliament is required to enact an election date.
In a letter addressed to the committee’s chairperson, Kezzie Msukwa, Kaphale cited Section 80 (1) of the Malawian constitution, which states, “The President shall be elected in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution in such manner as may be prescribed by an Act of Parliament and, save where this Constitution provides otherwise, the ballot in a Presidential election shall take place concurrently with the general election for members of the National Assembly as prescribed by section 67 (1).”
Kaphale also expressed doubt that the MEC could hold a fair election by June 23, pointing to a lack of polling materials as a result of lockdown measures, and the fact that several commissioners’ terms are due to expire on June 5.
Revelations of election rigging, like the use of correction fluid on ballot papers, sparked mass protests
The rerun was originally scheduled for July 2, after the country’s supreme court had nullified the May 2019 election results that granted incumbent president Peter Mutharika a second term, citing widespread irregularities. Revelations of election rigging, like the use of correction fluid on ballot papers, sparked mass protests in the capital Lilongwe and elsewhere. Protesters demanded new elections and the resignation of MEC chairperson Jane Ansah, who did so last week.
Starting Friday, April 18, Malawi was supposed to begin a twenty-one-day lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but an injunction by the High Court the day before delayed the implementation of the lockdown by a week until a judicial review could take place.
This is now the second time the Malawian courts have frustrated the administration of President Peter Mutharika.
Human rights activists, religious organizations, and vendors brought the challenge against the lockdown to the courts, believing the government had taken this decision without providing for the needs of its citizens as well. Given that some of the complaints are of a constitutional nature, the High Court decided to refer the case to the Supreme Court on Tuesday, April 26. No date has been set for the Supreme Court’s deliberation.
The government announced a cash aid program for the country’s poorest.
This is now the second time the Malawian courts have frustrated the administration of President Peter Mutharika, the first after the Constitutional Court nullified his narrow election victory and ordered a new vote on July 2. Possibly responding to the grievances brought forth against the lockdown, the government announced a cash aid program for the country’s poorest, which will dispense a monthly payment of US$40 (matching the minimum wage) to about a million Malawians and small businesses over the next four months.
The World Bank had authorized a US$37 million fund to help the country handle COVID-19, which to date has reported thirty-nine cases and three deaths.
Albinism is a group of inherited genetic disorders that occur in people of all ethnicities, but it is more prevalent in Africa than elsewhere in the world. People who are born with it produce very little or no melanin, the pigment that determines the color of one’s skin, hair, and eyes. Melanin also plays a role in the development of optic nerves, so people with albinism have vision problems.
In many African countries, albinism is misunderstood and couched in myth and superstition. People with albinism are among the most vulnerable groups in Africa, and now the COVID-19 pandemic is putting them at even higher risk. Conspiracy theories are being shared on social media platforms blaming the community for the virus.
In Malawi, superstitions about people with albinism persist, for example, that it is contagious, or that they’re cursed, or that they will bring bad luck. As a result, Malawians with albinism, a community of some 10,000 people in a population of 20 million, have long suffered discrimination, physical violence, and even murder.
A few extremist witch doctors believe their body parts have magical properties, making them the victims of brutal attacks.
The Association of Persons with Albinism in Malawi (APAM) has documented the murder of twenty-five people with albinism since 2014, and a further thirteen who are still missing. Thousands live in fear of being abducted and killed. When neighboring Tanzania moved to protect this community in 2015, it led to a rise in the number of attacks against people with albinism in Malawi.
Malawi is preparing for a presidential election rerun in early July, after the constitutional court annulled last year’s results over irregularities. “There is an [increased] threat of abductions and killings of persons with albinism ahead of the fresh presidential election,” says Ian Simbota, president of APAM. “And now we are hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
As of May 4, Malawi had reported forty-one confirmed cases of COVID-19 and three deaths from the disease.
Simbota says in such an atmosphere of political tension and stress about the disease, attacks against albinos will increase, as they are wrongly blamed for the virus. This is one of many myths circulating about the virus that the Thomson Reuters Foundation has warned against. The World Health Organization describes it as an “infodemic” that could put people living in remote and rural areas at greater risk of being infected.
“Persons with albinism are among the poorest in the country.”
Other Vulnerable Communities
Maria Jose Torres, United Nations resident coordinator for Malawi, spoke at the launch of the national COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan on April 8 in the capital Lilongwe. “Through our support towards the implementation of this plan, we will be fulfilling our primary role of protecting the lives of vulnerable people in Malawi during this disaster,” she said. “This should include persons living with disabilities or chronic illnesses, persons with albinism, single-headed households, remote villages, LGBTI persons, persons living with HIV/AIDS, the elderly, refugees and those living in extreme poverty.”
Those likely at most risk from COVID-19 are Malawians who have HIV/AIDS. Some 9.2 percent of the adult population of Malawi are HIV-positive, one of the highest infection rates in the world. An estimated 1 million Malawians live with HIV, and some 13,000 Malawians died from AIDS-related causes in 2018. Currently, about 89 percent of the Malawians who are HIV-positive are able to suppress the virus with antiviral medication. International programs such as the US government’s PEPFAR program help to fund this treatment.
Yet, it is such programs that are at the center of the controversy surrounding Malawi’s response to COVID-19. Civil society organizations have criticized the government for a lack of transparency and accountability regarding the use of taxes and donor funds in the name of COVID-19.
Simbota worries that money meant to help people with albinism and other marginalized communities will be misappropriated. He wonders why, when the government says it is working with vulnerable people, it has not approached APAM. “The government is just taking advantage of COVID-19 to squander funds from our taxes and donations,” he says. “Look at the way this so-called cabinet committee on COVID-19 is sharing money among themselves.
“Persons with albinism are among the poorest in the country, but most of the time they are sidelined when it comes to accessing Malawi's Social Cash Transfer Programme or loans.”
MacDonald Nyirenda is a social entrepreneur, activist, and writer based in Malawi.
Following the Malawian Constitutional Court’s decision to annul last year’s presidential election results due to widespread irregularities in the vote, opposition groups and their supporters have taken to the streets in celebration. Incumbent president Peter Mutharika won a second term with 38.6 percent of the vote, narrowly beating Lazarus Chakwera, who came second with 35.41 percent, a difference of just fewer than 159,000 votes.
The court ordered an election do-over within the next five months and under new rules. Included in its recommendations was the dissolution of the Malawian Electoral Commission due to its incompetence in the last election; the removal of the first-past-the-post system, which was declared unconstitutional; and the provision that the winner should receive at least 50 percent of the vote, which could require a second-round run-off.
Malawi is thus setting a precedent for other African democracies to not accept sub-par electoral process and results. The constitutional court’s decision to disrupt the political status quo is a critical boon for pro-democracy advocates in Malawi and across the continent, who have warned of a democratic backsliding over the past decade.
The court ruling weakens the power of the incumbent president, and will encourage opposition parties to form coalitions.
President Mutharika, for his part, has declared he will appeal the court’s ruling. Tensions between Mutharika backers and his opponents are expected to escalate as the new elections get closer.