Malawi- presidential election 2020

With votes counted, Malawi’s opposition Tonse Alliance claims victory

Electoral officials count votes in Lilongwe, Malawi after the 23 May fresh presidential election. A new election was called after the Constitutional Court reled the May 2019 election null and void.
Electoral officials count votes in Lilongwe, Malawi after the 23 May fresh presidential election. A new election was called after the Constitutional Court reled the May 2019 election null and void. AFP - AMOS GUMULIRA

The votes have been counted after a highly anticipated rerun of the presidential election in Malawi this week, as the opposition Tonse Alliance claimed victory over incumbent Peter Mutharika on Thursday afternoon, although Malawi’s Electoral Commission has yet to announce the official result.


“With all votes ... tallied, it is now clear that Malawians have resoundingly given [the opposition] alliance the mandate to govern this country for the next five years,” according to a statement from Tonse Alliance.

The alliance brings together main opposition leader Lazarus Chakwera, head of the Malawi Congress Party, and Saulos Chilima of United Transformation Movement party (UTM), who came in third place in the 2019 election, solidifying an opposition bloc.

Malawians went to the polls again after the Constitutional Court ruled the May 2019 elections null and void due to “widespread, systematic and grave” irregularities. That ruling was challenged and later upheld by the Malawi Supreme Court.

There were a number of marked changes between the two elections, according to political analyst Boni Dulani from the University of Malawi.

“Generally speaking, the quality and organization was a lot better than last year’s annulled election; the new leadership at the electoral commission placed emphasis on the fact that any electoral staff who messed up would be personally held liable,” says Dulani.

“A lot of the polling staff took that to heart-- they were a lot more cautious in the way they did things than before,” adds Dulani, who was also an observer in the election.

“That’s why we’ve seen almost no use of the correction fluid tippex, which characterized last year’s election,” he says.

The new Malawi Electoral Commission Head Chifundo Kachale, a high court judge, had three-and-a-half weeks to organize an election, and while there were a few glitches that were logistical, including missing materials, it was more transparent, says Dulani, which is why people are declaring winners—they have already done the tallying based on the numbers publicly posted at the district level. 

“There is no comparison to last year’s ‘tippex election’,” says Pemphero Wamwale Mphande, who ran as a member of parliament in his constituency last year and lost.

“For me as a candidate, we had a similar thing at my constituency-- one of my observers told me that at the counting of the results, more people had voted than had registered at the center,” he tells RFI, describing how 20 more votes were cast than the number of people on the voter roll.

In the 2019 election, the MP position for his constituency went to the incumbent.

“The funny thing is now it has gone to the leader of the opposition-- I think that’s interesting because I don’t think much has changed between then and now,” he says.

Writing on the wall

In the month prior to the election, the Institute of Public Opinion and Research (IPOR), headed by social scientist Dulani, polled Malawians around the country, asking voters about the upcoming election. Their pre-election poll showed that the Chakwera-Chilima Tonse Alliance opposition would win with a 58 percent total to incumber Peter Mutharika’s 38 percent.

According to Malawian media on Wednesday, the Tonse Alliance had a 55 percent lead with three-quarters of the vote counted, while Mutharika had 40 percent.

“The final decision was what Malawians really decided and the result was there for all to see,” says Dulani.

Independent judiciary and military

In the run up to the court case to nullify the election, it was the independent judiciary and military that help create the space for free and fair fresh elections, says Jimmy Kainja, an academic at the University of Malawi.

“The independence of these institutions allowed people to go on the streets,” he tells RFI.

“The Human Rights Defenders Coalition asked people to come on the streets, people went out to demonstrate knowing that the military was not going to shoot on them,” he says.

“The courts ruled that people have the freedom of association…it was a people’s awakening, that they could go on the street and protest,” he adds.

Activist Mphande also believes that the military impartiality contributed to the whole electoral process.

“Without them, we wouldn’t be where we are today; in Africa it’s very hard to win a court case, because the incumbent government has the military on their side,” says Mphande.

Review of international observers

The voting was carried out with no outside funding and no international observers, who were absent in part due to travel restrictions because of Covid-19.

Conducting the election independently is something that Malawians can be proud of, he says, which should be a starting point to review the efficacy of international observers.

“We have been let down in the past with the international observers… it seems that they are concerned with political correctness that they make the generic statement that the election was free and fair. They can’t be honest, and that is the problem,” says Mphande.

Although the May 2019 had a number of lapses, international observers declared the election free and fair—before the Constitutional Court annulled it.

“In the previous election, there were tippexed result sheets all over, everyone could see numbers were being altered. If these people were paying attention, they could have spotted this thing,” he says.

Although Mphande says international observers do have a role, their mandate should be reviewed. He believes inviting observers is not "one-size-fits-all" on the African continent, either, citing Zimbabwe as an example.

“Zimbabwe has a repressive regime with the ruling ZANU-PF party and I don’t think it would be the same to have an election there with no international observers,” he says.

Moving forward

While Malawians are waiting for the final official declaration from the electoral commission, analysts are already looking ahead to the challenges the new Chikwera-Chilima administration will face.

“It’s obviously a defining moment for Malawi, and hopefully the new administration will address the many new challenges that this country really faces, not the least being Covid-19,” says Dulani, adding that the outgoing government had lost focus on the pandemic due to the ongoing political intrigue.

“One would hope that we can really take this issue seriously before it really gets completely out of hand,” he adds.

Malawians are hoping for a new, transparent administration, but many are proud of the achievement of this rerun election.

“We have done it on our own, most countries in Africa think they can do it on their own, and that is going to be something to watch,” says Mphande.


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