Malawi election: A vote for democracy and a new president

Lazarus Chakwera became Malawi's new president Sunday after months of street protests and a decision by the Constitutional Court for a new election.

REUTERS/Eldson Chagara//File Photo
Malawi Congress Party leader Lazarus Chakwera addresses supporters after a court annulled the May 2019 presidential vote in Lilongwe, Malawi, February 4, 2020. On Sunday, Chakwera was sworn in as president.

The opposition has won Malawi’s historic rerun of the presidential election, the first time a court-overturned vote in Africa has led to the defeat of an incumbent leader.

Lazarus Chakwera’s victory late Saturday was a result of months of determined street protests in the southern African nation, and of a unanimous decision by the Constitutional Court that widespread irregularities in the May 2019 election – including the use of correction fluid on ballots – could not stand.

President Peter Mutharika, who had sought a second five-year term, earlier Saturday called the rerun of the election “the worst in Malawi’s history.” He alleged his party’s monitors had been beaten and intimidated during Tuesday’s election, but the Malawi Human Rights Commission, an observer, called the vote peaceful and transparent.

Mr. Chakwera won with 58% of the vote, or 2.6 million votes out of 4.4 million cast. Mutharika received 1.7 million. Flag-waving supporters erupted in cheers as the results were read out, and some street celebrations began. Fireworks popped.

“I’m so happy I could dance all night,” Mr. Chakwera, former leader of the Malawi Assemblies of God church, told reporters. “This is a win for Malawians, a win for democracy."

Malawi’s drama was just the second time in Africa that a court has overturned a presidential election, following a ruling on Kenya’s vote in 2017. In Kenya’s fresh election, the president won while the opposition boycotted.

As Malawi prepared for its new vote, incumbent Vice President Saulos Chilima, who split last year’s results with Mr. Chakwera, decided instead to stand as his running mate in a bid to maximize chances of unseating Mr. Mutharika.

Some celebrations began Thursday night when Malawi’s state broadcaster reported that Mr. Chakwera was well ahead with all votes in. But the electoral commission, revamped since the court’s ruling, indicated it was taking time to meet legal requirements in verifying results.

The commission's new chair, judge Chifundo Kachale, while announcing the results acknowledged that “it has been a very interesting journey.” He said turnout was 64% of 6.8 million registered voters.

An attempt by Mr. Mutharika’s government to get Malawi’s chief justice to step down just days before the new election had failed amid an outcry. Aware that time was running out, Mr. Mutharika on Saturday asked the country to “move on peacefully” and respect the presidency. 

Critics had accused Mr. Mutharika of doing little to tackle corruption. "Curbing corruption is crucial now more than ever,"  Lauryn Nyasulu, president of the Economics Association of Malawi told Reuters. "The government needs to seal all loopholes and use whatever resources available in efforts to rebuild the economy and safeguard the welfare of those that have been heavily affected by the COVID-19 pandemic."

Mr. Chakwera was sworn in for a five-year term on Sunday, hours after officially unseating Mr. Mutharika.

"To stand before you as president today is an honor. It's an honor that fills with unspeakable joy and immense gratitude," Mr. Chakwera said in his acceptance speech.

"With your help, we will restore a new generation's faith in the possibility of having a government that serves, not a government that rules," he told a cheering crowd dressed in the colors of his own Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and the allied party of Mr. Chilima.

MCP is Malawi's founding party and Mr. Chakwera's win brings it back into power after 26 years in opposition.

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