Friday, May 23, 2014
Malawian Elections 2014 - My Thoughts!
Malawi held it’s first ever-tripartite election on Tuesday 20th May 2014. Of course most of the attention is focused upon the race for the Presidency. As voting began opinion polls suggested that the election was too close to call. The most thorough poll (from Afrobarometer) suggested that Peter Mutharika (DPP) was ahead but would face stiff competition from Pastor-come-Politician Lazarus Chakwera (MCP) and to a lesser extent from the incumbent Joyce Banda (PP) and the son of the late former President Bakali Muluzi; Atuple Muluzi (UDF).
The election itself has been dramatic to say the least. It’s script keeps unfolding with more twists and turns than House of Cards. For an outsider looking in it is enthralling. For the people of Malawi there is uncertainty and tension mount as they await official results from the MEC. The unelected incumbent, Joyce Banda, the darling of the west, has cried foul play and alleges that the DPP have rigged the election for Peter Mutharika. Such a claim seems ludicrous given that as the incumbent Mrs Banda controls the machinery of government but as been reported verbatim as if fact by the BBC and the Guardian in the UK. The fact is that President Banda lost credibility in Malawi following the Cashgate scandal that happened on her watch and that as a result she is distrusted by the majority of Malawians. There is very little evidence of wide spread electoral fraud at presence. It is possible that evidence may emerge let’s not forget that the African Union and European Union observers have stated that the election was free and fair.
Despite such allegations of malpractice and vote rigging one feels compelled with admiration for the people of Malawi and it is my belief that this election could be a watershed for Malawian democracy and beyond. The election was conducted peacefully. Despite some sensationalistic journalists trying to paint a picture of chaos the reality is that other than a few skirmishes in Ndirande (a renowned township of Blantyre) and a couple of incidents the elections took place in peace. EU observers and the African Union have confirmed this. The culture of western based journalists stirring up trouble couldn’t be better exemplified than by the early messages on Twitter from a journalist from the Washington Post “Monkey Cage” blog Kim Yi Dionne who claimed that illegal roadblocks and rioting were marring the election. Miss Yi Dionne is clearly a capable writer (the Monkey Blog article is excellent!) but is clearly a better blogger from behind a comfy desk in the Northampon, MA, than when in the heated environment of an election day in Malawi! The problem with such journalists who parachute in to a country they may never have lived in is that they have no idea of the societal norms. Young men with their shirts off running through the streets of Ndirande are guilty of anti social behavior and it reflects badly on their locality but they are not rioting nor having any drastic impact on the outcome of an otherwise peaceful electoral process. I have observed far worse images of anti social behavior after soccer matches in Malawi than those from the Election Day. It is not that I seek to condone anti social exuberance but believe it must be seen in the right context. Similarly such amateur journalists sensationalized the military presence on the streets of Blantyre and Lilongwe. The army being on the streets is common sight in Malawi. Furthermore, to the best of my knowledge the army did not have to take punitive action against citizens in order to quell disturbances but carried out their role in a relatively unobtrusive manner. Such scenes may be shocking to an assistant professor from the USA but are not too many who understand the nature of Malawian life.
The MEC has faced bitter criticism from many in Malawi. Such criticisms as the EU observers allude to are justified in the operational process of the election. Polling Stations opened late, voting ran into a second day in some cases and the electronic system of counting votes broke down. However, even against a back drop of pressure from the People’s Party of Joyce Banda, elements of the media and many concerned Malawian citizenships understandably anxious to hear results, the MEC stood firm and insisted on only reporting results when votes had been counted. The MEC gave regular news conferences and has been remarkably transparent and professional. The conduct of the MEC in difficult circumstances has been admirable and in many ways as been a model for African democracy and beyond. They have refused to be hurried into declaring early results and have shown a determination to focus on accuracy rather than speed. The job of an electoral commission is always crucial but no more so than when results are so tight. For the first time Malawi is electing MPs to Parliament as well as local elections and that has put tremendous strain on the system. Whatever the outcome the MEC should be saluted for carrying out it’s role with integrity.
It’s hard to speculate too much while awaiting the outcome but I suggest that the 2014 elections in Malawi will be a watershed for democracy. The newly elected President will be sworn into office knowing that 70% of the people have voted against him/her in all likelihood and will have to work with a hung Parliament but the optimist part of me sees how this might be positive. The 2014 Presidential election cries out for a run offor a system of transferable vote. A run off would ensure that the newly elected President had a strong mandate and the consent of the people. Now might be the ideal time for the hierarchy within Malawian politics to consider constitutional review vis-à-vis the election of the President? First past thePost might suit a two party system like the USA but does not suit a multi party democracy like Malawi. The model for electing the president in France might be one worth considering in Malawi?
So what for the future? One suspects that after her initial disappointment Mrs Banda will land of her feet and secure many a top job on the world stage. She will remain the darling of the West and will potentially become an excellent ambassador for her country. Atupele has now tested the water. He will be back and the UDF stronger. He was a contender and is still young. He will learn from the experience of contesting the Presidency and may well still be President of Malawi one day. As for what happens to Lazarus Chakwera and Peter Mutharika – that will be determined by which of the two is declared President of Malawi.