2019 Malawi Tripartite Elections: Mutharika Narrowly Retains Presidency

2019 Malawian Presidential Elections: Malawian president Peter Mutharika was, on 21 May, narrowly re-elected for a second, and his final, five-year mandate.

words and photographs Deogracias Benjamin Kalima

In a contest which always was expected to be close, the 78-year-old law professor, representing the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), amassed 1,940,709 votes, or 38.57 percent of the total vote, beating his closest contender, Lazarous Chakwera, an evangelical cleric turned politician for the Malawi Congress Party (MCP, an independence party), who claimed 1,781,740 votes (35.41%). Meanwhile, Mutharika’s immediate past deputy, Saulos Chilima, who formed his own party, UTM, after falling out with his former employer, finished a distant third with 1,018,369 votes, representing 20.24%. The remainder of the vote went to four lesser-known candidates. Malawi uses a ‘winner takes it all’, ‘First-Past-The-Post’ electoral system whereby the contest is decided by the slightest margin possible.

Mutharika was declared winner by the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) after the High Court had vacated an earlier court order obtained by the leading opposition, MCP, stopping the electoral body from announcing the results until all alleged irregularities the opposition had presented had been addressed.

Victory parade of the Malawi Elections
Lazarous Chakwera (leader of the MCP) and running mate

Malawi Electoral Commission chairperson, Justice Jane Ansah, while admitting there were some challenges in the tabulation of the vote (like the use of Tippex to cover up for typing mistakes), said those things had nonetheless been corrected with the involvement of all stakeholders and had therefore not affected the results of the polls in favour of, or against, any candidate, dismissing an allegation by both the MCP and UTM that the electoral body had manipulated the election results in favour of the ruling party.

“While we can confirm the widespread use of Tippex on results sheets in two of the twenty-eight districts,” said Ansah, “the commission quarantined the affected result sheets as we worked with all stakeholders to correct the anomalies and no one was advantaged nor disadvantaged as a result.”

Save for a few technical glitches, which saw some registered voters having their personal details missing from the Biometric Voters Register, voting was generally peaceful as polls opened at 06:00 hours and closed at 18:00 hours, local time. A total of 5,105,983 voters (out of 6,859,570 registered voters) turned up to cast their vote at 5,002 polling centres spread across the small south east African country, a former British colony. These were Malawi’s sixth general elections since the re-introduction of multiparty democracy in 1993.  In addition to the presidency, these elections also concerned the roles of parliamentarians and local government councilors for a new five-year term.

It was the first time the Malawi Electoral Commission, an independent body tasked with conducting inclusive, free and fair elections, used the Biometric Voter Registration, whereas past elections saw the voting roll recorded manually.

The European Union observer mission described the elections as “well managed, inclusive, transparent and competitive,” despite tension a few days before actual voting caused by various claims of rigging by the opposing political parties.

A few days after Mutharika was announced winner and sworn in for the second term, MCP and UTM applied to the High Court to have the elections nullified, alleging the polls were rigged in favour of the president and therefore lacked creditability. The leader of UTM, Chilima, who is the immediate past vice president, said he was surprised with the result as “it did not reflect the will of Malawians,” joining Chakwera in claiming that the polls were rigged.

Ironically, Chilima himself used to taunt the president, and his party, claiming that they were no match for him when it comes to issues of rigging.

Saulos Chilima voting in the Malawi Elections
Saulos Chilima (leader of the UTM party) casts his vote

Key Issues in the Run Up To Elections

President Mutharika went into this year’s elections seeking a fresh five-year term of office, promising to continue with his development programmes, especially in the areas of economy, health, agriculture, rural livelihoods improvement and infrastructure development. He is credited with stabilizing the economy to a single digit inflation by, among other things, implementing strict fiscal measures. These included reduced external travel for him and his top officials, maintaining a lean 20-member cabinet in his entire first term and significantly reducing the country’s reliance on donor partners for budgetary support. His administration has also managed to upgrade various roads from earth to bituminous standard nationwide. During the launch of his re-election bid, he promised to continue with developmental programmes if re-elected.

However, Mutharika had been accused by his critics of not doing enough to curb official high-level corruption among his allies. In 2018, Mutharika was entangled in an alleged bribery scandal involving a business magnate. About US$1 million had found its way into a ruling party account whose sole signatory is the president. Mutharika has denied any wrongdoing, and he was cleared by the anti-corruption body.

While agriculture is the mainstay of the country’s economy, providing livelihood to about 80 percent of the country’s population of 17 million, most subsistence farmers cannot afford to buy farm input. Since 2005, the government has been implementing a targeted farm input subsidy programme to help poor farmers to be food secure by providing them with fertilizers and seed. The programme has been largely a success, but the opposition parties allege it to have been mismanaged and riddled with corruption, and that is has benefitted the elites instead of the intended people. All of the opposition parties had indicated their strong desire to discontinue the programme and replace it with universal subsidy. The DPP says they will continue the targeted style, pointing out that universal subsidy, if implemented, could end up benefitting more large-scale farmers than subsistence ones.

“DPP is for pro-poor policies,” said Nicholous Dausi, the ruling party spokesperson, “[and], as such, will maintain the targeted fertilizer subsidy as we know this is the best as compared to universal subsidy which will put poor people at the disadvantage as the large scale farmers could end up buying fertilizers in stock.”

Mutharika’s government has also been accused of not doing enough to stop the barbaric killings of people living with albinism. Since 2013, 26 such people have been mercilessly butchered over the superstitious belief that their body parts can bring good luck and wealth.

However, the government says it is doing everything it can to stop the killings and ensure security for people living with albinism, citing not only the increased presence of police, but also new personal devices that have been distributed to the sufferers of this disease and that are linked to police establishments across the country.

“Safety for all people including people living with albinism is paramount,” former Home Affairs minister Cecilia Chazama was quoted as saying. “We have been working hard to ensure their safety by providing them with security alarm gadgets and increasing the police patrols.” 

However, in February this year, a 14-year-old boy living with albinism was abducted from the central district of Dedza by unknown assailants, which forced Malawi’s Association of People Living with Albinism (APAM) to petition the president to declare Malawi unsafe for people living with albinism. Frustration has mounted after previous engagements between APAM and the president have proven ineffective, and there is still no sign of action on the part of government.

“APAM is tired with the unfruitful dialogues with government yet no action as evidenced by the recent abduction of the boy with albinism. Now we are not interested in the dialogue anymore,” said Overstone Kondowe, president of APAM.

However, barely a week after APAM had snubbed the president’s call for dialogue, a splinter group arose from the albinism community that accused APAM of serving the interests of politicians and of being elitist in its operations, serving a few educated and privileged people while sidelining the majority poor. The splinter group itself then went on to meet with the president, though the outcome of that meeting is not yet known.

Currently, several people are under arrest on charges of abducting and killing people living with albinism. Among them are a Catholic priest, a policeman, and a clinician, all accused of murdering MacDonald Masambuka from the eastern district of Machinga. His gruesome murder, in 2018, involved the removal of several body parts. The case is still ongoing at the High Court and all suspects were denied bail.

Now all eyes are on Mutharika’s government, and how it will deal with the issue of “albino killings” once and for all.

Everton Chimulirenji in the Malawi Elections
Everton Chimulirenji, Malawi’s new vice president

In parliamentary elections, out of 193 seats, the DPP emerged on top with 62 parliamentarians, while MCP and independents bagged 55 each, two former ruling parties (United Democratic Front and Peoples Party) won 10 and 5 respectively, while UTM got 4.

 Although the ruling party won just 62 seats, it will likely have a simple majority in parliament as most independents have indicated they are either joining the ruling party or supporting it in parliament. Unconfirmed reports indicate over 30 independents have already declared their intention to work with government.

If the reports are anything to go by, then it is likely that the Speaker of National Assembly (The Parliament), the only legislative body in Malawi, will come from DPP as well.

A total of 44 women won parliamentary seats in the elections, a slight improvement from 32 in the last elections in 2014. Among the newly elected women lawmakers is the 22-year-old Fyness Magonjwa from the Eastern district of Machinga, who won on the ruling party ticket. She is the youngest lawmaker ever elected to Malawi Parliament.

Saulos Chilima and running mate in the Malawi Elections
Saulos Chilima (leader of the UTM) and running mate

In local government elections, the DPP won most seats, seconded by MCP and UTM, respectively. The elections were divisive, as they have been in previous elections, being evidenced by the voting pattern. The DPP was victorious in the populous southern region of the country, while MCP got most votes in its stronghold of the central region and UTM was mostly voted for in the northern part of the country.

There have been calls to change the electoral system from First-Past-The-Post to 50+1 Majority rule but the proposal was rejected by Malawi Parliament in 2017.