The president of Malawi really likes power. It is not at all clear he actually won the 2019 election, but it is very clear he isn’t becoming an ex-president without a fight. The latest elections were annulled by the Constitutional Court in February, but that is just one battle in a prolonged war. It’s a pretty damming indictment of our press that, even before Corona, no one knew this was happening, so here is the story of that war.
In 2019 Malawi held elections that were widely seen as unfair. The Human Rights Defenders Coalition, a local NGO and perhaps the only organisation in this story with an accurate name, started organising mass protests that sometimes turned violent.
Resetting politics back to 2014
In February the Constitutional Court ruled that voting irregularities were sufficiently widespread the “the integrity of the result was severely compromised”. The annulled it and called for fresh elections within 150 days (The eminently quotable head of the Malawi Electoral Commission, Jane Ansah, said the ruling was a mistake because “Tipex was used to correct votes, not to change them”). The court also suggested firing the Malawi Electoral Committee, or MEC, and clarified that the winner needs “50 per cent plus one” of the vote. Even with the help of tipex the president, Peter Mutharika, head of Democratic Progressive Party, only managed 38.6% of the vote, with the rest split between the other candidates.
Although Mutharika had been re-elected in 2019, the vice-presidency had changed hands. In the previous 2014 election the Democratic Progressive’s Party and the smaller United Transformation Party, which had split from it, fought the elections as a coalition. That has since broken down. The freedom of assembly laws the Human Rights Defenders have benefited from are UTM legislation and UTM have entered an uneasy coalition with the other political parties to become the DPP’s biggest rival. It is fair to say Peter is a bit hacked off to be back working with deputy president and UTM leader Saulos Chilima.
Fighting in Malawi’s Courts
The Malawi Electoral Committee, or MEC, and the president have been annoying the court with appeals ever since the original decision. MEC claim they can’t register voters in time. The courts told them to make it happen. MEC argue they don’t have capacity to implement the 50% plus one rule and any new elections need to be fought under the old rules. The Constitutional Court repeated it had clarified the existing rules as set out in the constitution, and it hadn’t changed anything. (The opposition have done MEC a solid and formed a coalition, so someone should win with at least 51% of the vote). MEC argue new elections will be expensive. As that is not a legal argument the court are unswayed so MEC have engaged very expensive South African lawyers. This went down really badly. The Nation, the paper we get delivered to the office, had an op-ed asking why they couldn’t engage local lawyers and quoted a politics professor accused the finance minister of lying when he denied all knowledge of the payments to the firm. It turns out no local lawyer was prepared to represent the president and MEC, but people still think the finance minister lies.
The Nation reports that various people have said MEC is incompetent. Ansah says “are people mad? Do they know what incompetent means?”
Fighting in Malawi’s National Assembly
Peter doesn’t want to go anywhere but unfortunately for him the National Assembly has the ability to write legislation. Even worse, the DPP only hold 50 seats of 193. As a result the National Assembly have drawn up and passed a bill calling for new elections. It just needs presidential approval.
Fighting in public
The Human Rights Defenders have been keeping the pressure on. Then three of them were arrested. There is some controversy over the timing of this, did the police act just before or just after the president threatened the leaders by name? Journalists, commentators and interviewees filled the papers the next day pointing out that none of the police officers accused of gang rape have been arrested yet HRDC leaders are immediately behind bars on trumped up charges. When I lived in Syria no national news outlet would print something like that, and after three days the Malawi courts freed the HRDC on bail. I try not to annoy people by saying I think things could be a lot worse (I think Malawi is doing much better than the US did with the impeachment).
Then Mutharika announced he wasn’t signing the bill mandating new elections and fired his entire cabinet. He’s since reformed it without the deputy president. He clearly likes sacking people, because he fired the head of the army a few days later. However in the same way the House of Commons can force the Lords to acquiesce to legislation the Malawi National Assembly can push bills through and they certainly seem determined to do so, so there’s a new bill on Mutharika’s desk.
The HRDC have declared tomorrow a day of rage, but due to Corona that is manifesting as a strike not a mass protest. In fact Corona may be just what Mutharika was hoping would turn up when he stalled for time; gatherings of more than 100 people are banned. The MEC seem to have acquiesced to new elections on July 2nd, if it is safe to hold them, and there is at least one more appeal due to be heard before then.
It seems like there is going to be lots more politics still to happen.
Who are the parties?
- United Transformation Party – The kingmakers. Apparently they stand for maintaining cultural norms, but with freedom of speech.
- Democratic Progressive Party – A colleague said the DPP stand for the family. I assumed she meant family values, but she meant the Mutharika family. Before Peter was president Malawi had his brother Bingu, who died in office. Apparently there is a third brother waiting his turn. Peter has said he doesn’t like the North, the North doesn’t like him
- Malawi Congress Party – The party of the 30 year Hastings Banda dictatorship, they’re for the good old days (possibly minus beatings administered by the youth wing), subsidised chemical fertilizer, and infrastructure
- PP – The party that won the first, 1994 multi-party elections, a misallocation of funds scandal has tarnished their rep.
- Umodzi party – my colleague says they’re a nonentity and as I’m not a real journalist I’m leaving it at that.
(If you like reading my thoughts about the government’s of my temporary homes collapsing Iceland and Canada both lost their governments shortly after I arrived too)