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Malawi - election - Chichewa

Malawi’s president says he will appeal court ruling; Malawians hail inclusive proceedings

Opposition supporters celebrate after a court annulled the May 2019 presidential vote that declared Peter Mutharika a winner, in Lilongwe, Malawi, 4 February, 2020
Opposition supporters celebrate after a court annulled the May 2019 presidential vote that declared Peter Mutharika a winner, in Lilongwe, Malawi, 4 February, 2020 REUTERS/Eldson Chagara

The landmark ruling by a five judge panel in Malawi overturning the May 2019 presidential election will be appealed by President Peter Mutharika, a presidential spokesman said on Wednesday. Well-wishers and Malawians themselves took stock of the ruling, noting that the process was accessible and inclusive, through local language Chichewa translation.

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Although there was doubt that the court case, filed by main opposition Malawi Congress Party, would result in annulling the election, the evidence was clear that incumbent President Peter Mutharika did not take the majority of the votes, said Happy Kayumi, a political science professor at the University of Malawi.

People “thought that maybe the opposition were just interested…in trying to please their voters,” Kayumi told RFI. “But from week two we studied the hearing and some of the evidence was shocking,” he said.

In their 500-page decision, the five judges ruled “the irregularities and anomalies have been so widespread, systematic and grave… that the integrity of the results has been seriously compromised,” as only 23 percent of the result sheets could be verified.

‘Tippex election’

Called on social media as the ‘Tippex election’, referring to a brand of correction fluid, ballot tally papers emerged with areas painted with the white fluid and written over.

Mutharika, president since 2014 and brother of the late former president Bingu wa Mutharika, received 38.7 percent of the vote, while MCP leader Lazarus Chakwera took 34.1 percent of the vote and Deputy President Saulos Chilima, who broke away from the ruling party, received 20.24 percent.

“You have to think of this case from two dimensions: a legal battle, but also a political case,” said Jimmy Kainja, an academic at the University of Malawi, saying that Peter Mutharika is a lawyer by profession.

They may put forth an appeal “so they may buy a bit more time to organise themselves for the next election” that must take place within the next five months, said Kainja.

Grandmothers could follow through Chichewa translation

The unprecedented trial took on a national dimension as Times Radio, Zodiak Broadcasting, MIJ FM, and Malawi Broadcasting Corporation broadcast the trial from the first day in English, the national language of Malawi, but also translated the proceedings into Chichewa, one of the local languages that is spoken by more than 50 percent of the population.

Lawyers for petitioner Chilima asked the High Court panel to scrap the court-interpreted translations on the second day after some of the five interpreters had trouble with the legalese and reportedly had to be rescued by lawyers. They reasoned that this would slow down proceedings.

Judges Healy Potani, Ivy Kamanga, Mike Tembo, Dingiswayo Madise and Redson Kapindu refused to scrap the translations because the trial was in the national interest, a move that in hindsight created a sense of inclusion in the proceedings, said political analyst Jimmy Kainja.

“The whole thing has been covered from the beginning to the end, so it was easier for people to accept the outcome, because everybody could connect to where the judgment was coming from,” he told RFI, adding that this was an aspect that probably prevented major chaos on the street “if we just wake up one morning and find out that the ruling has gone this way and not that way.”

Although everyone speaks English, the issues with legalese made the process difficult to follow, but through the use of Chichewa, the trial became accessible.

“My grandmother has followed the case throughout -- she’s not that mobile, so she would sit down and listen to the radio the whole day,” said Kainja.

She would have more information about what was happening in the court than he would have on a daily basis because he was working and could not sit and listen to the proceedings, he explained.

“If you talk to her, she could give you a good idea of how the judgement came about, and I think that was very good,” he said.

“At the same time, it has also enhanced the understanding of how the judiciary works,” because many believe that justice is only for people who can afford lawyers and only favours the few, he added.

“I think this has gone a long way to bring some sense of trust to the system as well,” he said.

‘Bonus’ ruling from Malawi court

What is likely to have a greater long-term effect is the majority definition decision.

“What really surprised me so much is not only the verdict, but also what I can call a bonus, that the court has also interpreted certain key issues which are constitutional in nature,” said Kayumi, pointing out that the court defined what is a majority of votes as well as null and void votes.

The court interpreted majority to mean more than 50 percent of the votes, or 50+.

“Previously we have seen that those who were winning were getting less than 50 percent but the Malawian Electoral Commission was still declaring them as winners,” said Kayumi, who did not expect them to rule on this.

The issue had been repeatedly brought up, during each election, that 50+ majority needed to be defined.

“It had been present in parliament before, but through partisan politics, it never went through,” he said.

Malawians will need to return to the polls within 150 days, according to the High Court ruling. Mutharika has six weeks to mount an appeal.

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