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Updated Mar 20, 2020

On March 19, thousands of Malawians, adorned with the colors of various political parties, gathered at the Kamuzu Institute for Sports in the capital Lilongwe to support an announced alliance between opposition parties against President Peter Mutharika. Whereas most countries around the world have banned large public gatherings due to COVID-19, Malawians appear unfazed, as no case of infection has been detected in the small Southern African country yet. The opposition coalition is headed by Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and Saulos Chilima of the United Transformation Movement (UTM), who came in second and third for the presidential election, respectively.

The Malawi Supreme Court annulled the results of the May 2019 election in which incumbent president Mutharika was re-elected, citing mass irregularities and ordering a new round of voting to be held next month. It’s uncertain whether the vote will go ahead as planned, and Malawians have taken to the streets in protest against Mutharika. Five other opposition parties have joined Chakwera and Chilima’s coalition, including that of former president Joyce Banda of the People’s Party (PP).


Why It Matters

Malawi’s opposition parties are taking a gamble by holding such a large rally. Even though no official COVID-19 case has been reported in the country, there is a possibility that the virus has already entered Malawi and is spreading through communities, especially at thousands-strong public gatherings like the opposition rally. That so many turned out in spite of the risks shows Malawians’ determination to be ruled by a fairly elected government. The overturn of the 2019 election results was a watershed moment for Malawian democratization efforts. How the incumbent president and opposition groups handle this crisis going forward will affect democracy not only in Malawi but also in other African countries. Tanzania faces similar concerns of democratic backsliding ahead of elections later this year.

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