Malawi Court Annuls Election in Boost for African Democracy

(Bloomberg) --

A decision by Malawi’s Constitutional Court to annul last year’s election on the grounds that they were rigged sparked celebrations in the streets and gave a fillip to democracy on a continent where political processes are all too often abused.

In setting aside the victory that returned President Peter Mutharika and his Democratic Progressive Party to power, Malawi became just the second African nation to do so after Kenya’s High Court overturned the outcome of a 2017 vote.

Malawi Court Annuls Election in Boost for African Democracy

“The days of politicians playing fast and loose with electoral law are clearly numbered,” Gary Van Staden, an analyst at NKC African Economics based in Paarl, South Africa, said in an emailed note to clients on Tuesday. “That is encouraging for the consolidation of democracy on the continent.”

Numerous other recent elections in Africa, including those in Nigeria, Mozambique, Botswana and the Democratic Republic of Congo, have been dogged by allegations of rigging. A study of 44 nations on the continent carried out by Nic Cheeseman, a professor of democracy and international development at the University of Birmingham in the U.K., showed almost every criterion used to evaluate the state of democracy slipped between 2015 and 2017.

In a 500-page judgment that took about 10 hours to read, Malawi’s Judge President Healey Potani and four colleagues detailed a raft of irregularities, including the widespread use of correctional fluid to alter figures, duplicate result sheets and unsigned tally forms.

The judges were scathing of the country’s electoral commission, saying it was incompetent, had abrogated its duty, and had discarded the constitutional rights of voters. Its actions “greatly undermined the integrity of the elections,” they said.

Besides ordering fresh elections within 150 days, the court said the winner of the presidency must secure an absolute majority, as opposed to merely the most votes.

The country will be run by the previous government, which was headed by Mutharika and his deputy, Saulos Chilima, until fresh elections are held, the court said. Chilima quit the ruling party last year in protest at the government’s perceived failure to clamp down on graft.

The Malawi Electoral Commission declared Mutharika the winner of the May vote with 38.6% support. That prompted the main opposition Malawi Congress Party, whose leader Lazarus Chakwera secured 35.4% backing, and Chilima’s United Transformation Movement, who finished third with 20%, to approach the courts.

‘Victory for Malawi’

“Mutharika stole this vote, he was helped by some people who love money more than their country,” Chakwera told supporters at the party’s headquarters in the capital, Lilongwe and was broadcast on the party’s Facebook feed. “What happened yesterday is not my victory, it is a victory for Malawi, victory for Africa.”

Chimwemwe Maliseni, 22, who cast his ballot for Chilima last time and took part in opposition celebrations in Blantyre, the commercial capital on Tuesday said the court’s decision “meant my vote has been reclaimed and I am ready to vote again. This time I am very hopeful, it will be a fair election.”

The High Court initially blocked a recount, sparking widespread protests in the southern African nation’s main cities and calls for MEC Chairwoman Jane Ansah to quit.

Mutharika has yet to comment on the ruling. Kalekeni Kaphale, a lawyer for the electoral commission, told the privately owned MIJ FM radio station it is still discussing the matter.

Landlocked Malawi is among the world’s least developed countries with a low life expectancy and high infant mortality. The economy is mainly agrarian, with a largely rural population, and relies on aid from international donors, the World Bank and the IMF. It is Africa’s biggest supplier of burley tobacco, a low-quality variety of the leaf used to fill cigarettes rather than flavor them and the crop accounts for the bulk of its exports.

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