BLANTYRE – Malawi’s tumultuous elections, held last week, have left the country reeling and at risk of violence. While peaceful campaigns marked the lead-up to the vote, havoc reigned on election day, when numerous polling centers didn’t open and many had no ballot boxes. Voters rioted, and Malawi’s president alleged electoral fraud. Malawi has been plunged into a political crisis that now threatens to undermine its two-decade-old democracy.
While in Malawi’s second largest city, Blantyre, for the elections, I expected to find a positive African story. It was Malawi’s fifth democratic elections since the end of one-party rule and, on the eve of the vote, the Malawi Electoral Commission declared it was ready to run an efficient and transparent election.
Instead, I found chaos. In many polling centers in Blantyre, voting started late. Many centers did not open at all. I visited a polling center that had not opened by 4 p.m. and spoke to frustrated people who had queued as early as 4 in the morning. An official informed me that voting papers, indelible ink, and ballot boxes had not yet arrived – something that happened in many other centers across the country.
In protest, hundreds of voters rioted in Blantyre’s streets, burning down a polling station. The electoral commission extended voting by three hours and in some centers voting spilled into the next day.
During vote counting in Blantyre, the electronic system used to transmit votes crashed, and the commission resorted to manual counting.
The commission’s preliminary results for the presidential race, based on 30 percent of votes counted, placed opposition leader Peter Mutharika ahead with 42 percent of the vote, while current President Joyce Banda trailed with 23 percent.On Saturday, Banda alleged fraud and serious irregularities and declared the electoral process nullified. She ordered fresh elections to be held within 90 days. The electoral commission argued that the president had no authority to nullify elections and applied to the High Court, which ruled in favor of the commission and barred Banda from interfering in the electoral processes. The following day, the commission announced a country-wide recount of the vote after it found serious voting anomalies in some regions. The final results are expected within 30 days.
The tense and precarious situation in the country raises a serious risk of post-election violence. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU) have declared the elections free, peaceful, and credible. But they should insist that Malawi’s political parties follow the rule of law and respect the will of the Malawian people. The AU and SADC should urgently take all necessary steps to keep Malawi on a democratic path.
Commendably, Malawi’s security forces have remained politically neutral. The country’s political leaders should publicly call for calm during this tense period and ensure that the country does not slide into post-election violence. They should respect the electoral commission’s independence and allow it to discharge its mandate without undue influence.