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Investment in democratic institutions pays dividends in Malawi

July 14th, 2020
topic:Economic Opportunity
by:Cyril Zenda
located in:Malawi
tags:democracy, human rights

After successfully challenging election results, the opposition goes on to win the poll re-run, a development that is seen as a lesson for Africa on the importance of strong democratic institutions.

Malawi has a new government following an election re-run prompted by a landmark court ruling nullifying last year’s presidential election on the basis of what the court concluded to be “widespread irregularities”. When it was clear that the election had been rigged in favour of then president, Peter Mutharika, a strong coalition of civil society organisations led sustained protests while lawyers for the two main opposition parties fought their battles in the court.

In a result that vindicated the protesters, opposition leader Lazarus Chakwera won nearly 60 percent of the vote, in a development that shines a ray of hope on democracy on a continent where most leaders get away with electoral fraud.

Long, bumpy road

It however was not an easy and smooth road. In January this year, as the court challenge drew to a close, Malawian Chief Justice Andrew Nyirenda reported that there had been attempts to pay a $20 million bribe to the five Constitutional Court judges in whose hands the case rested.

In the aftermath of the February court ruling nullifying the May 2019 polls, an angry Mutharika dismissed the Malawian army commander Vincent Nundwe and his deputy for refusing to use force to crush the months-long protests against the election results.

Attempts to manipulate the judiciary continued until a few days before the June 23 re-election was held, moves that included an attempts by Mutharika to force Chief Justice Nyirenda into retirement on the flimsy grounds that he had accumulated “too many leave days”. The opposition and civil society activists resisted the move by launching a fresh round of protests, forcing Mutharika to back down.

Lessons for Africa

The positive developments for democracy in Malawi have been attributed to the presence of strong and independent institutions in the southern African nation – primarily the judiciary and the military – that were complimented by a robust civil society movement.

Dr Craig Moffat, the head of programme for Governance Delivery and Impact at Good Governance Africa, said the impact of this election process, both on the region and the continent, couldn’t be downplayed.

“It is only the second time on the continent where the judiciary has overturned a presidential election and called for a fresh election. The first was in Kenya in 2017, but saw the opposition boycotting the rerun election. In Malawi, there was full participation of all political parties,” said Dr Moffat.

“Contrary to doubts, the rerun election process appears to have been largely positive, with the Malawi Electoral Commission ensuring transparency and verification, thus legitimising the outcome.”

Hard to replicate on the continent

“Events in Malawi have rightly inspired pro-democracy activists across Africa, but they will be hard to replicate,” said Nicholas Cheeseman, professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham and co-author of the 2018 book How to Rig an Election, in an opinion piece co-authored with Malawian journalist Golden Matonga.

“Gradual institutional strengthening takes time, and mobilising large numbers of people requires a combination of effective civil society organisations and mass popular engagement. Many countries in the region are starting from a less promising position. In nearby Zambia, the courts are under the thumb of President (Edgar) Lungu. In Zimbabwe, the military is deeply entwined with the ruling party. In Tanzania, civil society groups and the media have to operate under tighter restrictions. For these countries, Malawi will be a valuable role model, but a key lesson is that change will not be quick or easy.”

Home-grown solutions still possible

Analysts said another important lesson from the Malawian case is the manner in which Malawians adopted a “home-grown ownership” of the whole electoral process from start to finish. Malawi managed to conduct the whole process with minimum involvement of the international community, most of who were sceptical of the country’s ability to hold credible elections.

“A major positive long-term effect that the “legal miracle” relating to this re-run election process will have on the region will be the imbedding of the idea that it is possible to trust the judiciary to be professional and independent,” said Dr Moffat whose regional think-tank is based in South Africa. “An important legal precedent has been set that should find some footing in courts across the region. This important precedent, overriding the May 2019 election results, may act as a catalyst to embolden regional activists, lawyers and democracy advocates in other countries in dealing with issues of poor governance and instances of perceived electoral fraud.”

The questionable role of international observers

The presidential election result that the Constitutional Court of Malawi overturned in February this year on account of irregularities that it ruled as “widespread, systematic, and grave” had curiously been endorsed by the Southern African Development Community, the African Union, the British Commonwealth, the European Union (preliminary report) the United States and many other international election observers as “free and fair”.

Endorsement of an election by most of these foreign observer missions lends credibility to the electoral process and a veneer of legitimacy to the winning candidate while weakening the case of the losers.

As a result, the outcome of internal processes in Malawi could also be seminal in highlighting the “shameful role” of international observers in weakening democratic processes through plastering over possible grave electoral irregularities. Losers in about half a dozen elections held in southern Africa in the last quarter of 2019 all complained of electoral fraud, but their cries were brushed aside after foreign observer missions endorsed them as free and fair.

“It may be argued, the international election observers may have contributed to the polarised situation that followed,” Dr Moffat pointed out. “With regards to upcoming elections in the region, election observer missions should study the Malawian case carefully to gather important lessons for future election observer deployments.”

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Author
Malawi
Malawi has a new government following an election re-run prompted by a landmark court ruling nullifying last year’s presidential election.
Malawian Chief Justice Andrew Nyirenda reported that there had been attempts to pay a $20 million bribe to the five Constitutional Court judges in whose hands the case rested.
The positive developments for democracy in Malawi have been attributed to the presence of strong and independent institutions in the southern African nation