Malawi elections in limbo as mellow African nation faces drama, unease

As the votes got counted last week, President Joyce Banda saw the numbers and shouted fraud. 

Raphael Tenthani/AP
Background from left to right, Chief Justice Richard Banda, his wife, Malawi President Joyce Banda, and younger sister Anjimile Mtila-Oponyo, join a voting queue to cast their votes in the eastern district of Zomba, Malawi, May 20, 2014. Last week, Malawi held tripartite presidential, parliamentary, and municipal elections.

A version of this post appeared on Africa in Transition. The views expressed are the author's own. 

Malawi is currently witnessing a political drama that will prompt Americans to recall the days of hanging chads in Bush vs. Gore.

On May 20, Malawi held tripartite presidential, parliamentary, and municipal elections. The vote was chaotic, and accompanied by spasms of violence that are unusual for this quiet southern African country.

Some urban polling centers were torched by angry crowds, and the army was dispatched to keep order.

The elections were also marred by logistical hurdles that are part and parcel of working in Malawi. Even urban polling stations with good access to infrastructure saw bungled ballot delivery, rescheduled polling, and officials counting votes by hand at night in the dark.

Early results found low numbers for the sitting president, Joyce Banda. The Malawi Electoral Support Network predicted that Peter Mutharika was on track to win the election with 36 percent of the vote, trailed by Lazarus Chakwera with 28 percent, followed by Ms. Banda with only 20 percent.

With the writing on the wall, Banda and her party cried fraud.

Banda alleged “serious irregularities” in the polling. Particularly concerning were reports from polling stations where candidates won more votes from a given location than there were registered voters. Malawi’s electoral commission acknowledged the anomalies and ordered a recount.

Before the recount results were released, Banda annulled the election and scheduled a new one. Was there a twist? In the next round of elections, Banda would not stand as a candidate.

While some angry citizens took to the streets, party and electoral commission leaders went to court. Over the weekend, Malawi’s high court ruled that Banda could not annul the election.

The court instead directed the electoral commission to announce the compromised result of the initial vote tabulation and to conduct a recount.

Malawi now faces weeks of political uncertainty and possible unrest as the candidates and electoral commission continue to resolve their differences in court. This is an unwelcome diversion from the most pressing problems in Malawi, a country where about half the population of 15 million lives in extreme poverty.

An ugly subtext of corruption helps make sense of this political intrigue.

Peter Mutharika, the candidate likely to win the 2014 election, tried to wrest power from then- vice president Banda in 2012 after the sitting president died in office. The coup failed.

Once in office, President Banda arrested Peter Mutharika for the attempted coup.

Now President Banda looks likely to lose her presidency to Peter Mutharika through the ballot box, and she too risks a prison sentence.

Banda’s administration is under investigation for a multimillion dollar embezzlement scandal. Under a Mutharika administration, she faces a very real prospect of jail time.

Some analysts suggest that Banda’s election maneuvering was designed to keep Mutharika out of power, and instead install a friendly government that would keep her from prison.

The unfolding crisis does reveal a note of optimism about the strength of institutions in a young African democracy like Malawi.

Malawi has only 20 years of democratic history to buttress this election. Even young Malawians remember when their country was ruled by a dictator who regulated every aspect of life from farming patterns to hairstyles.

Today Malawi’s courts are playing a neutral role in arbitrating the conflicts, even though President Banda’s husband is a retired chief justice.

The Malawian military has refused to intervene in this constitutional crisis, just as it refused two years ago when Peter Mutharika asked the military to stage a coup. The military, which relies on the U.S. for training and support, is maintaining peace but unfailingly avoids politics.

Many in Washington will be dismayed to see President Banda fall from her pedestal. When Banda became Africa’s second female president, she was rightfully feted across the West for her brave record as a human rights crusader and for her willingness to tell tough truths to the Malawian people. President Obama invited her to Washington in 2013 as an example of the best of African leadership.

At the least, she is on her way out of office.

At the most, she may have orchestrated a crisis to keep herself out of jail.

Supporters will be sad to see her go without delivering the turnaround Malawi sorely needs. They should take heart in the resilience of Malawian democracy and institutions, tested for the second time in two years, and so far standing up to the trials of outsized political personalities.

Ms. Collins is an associate director at the Council on Foreign Relations, who lived and worked in Malawi in 2012-2013. 

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