By Eugenio Njoloma*
Since the dawn of multiparty elections in 1994, Malawians have voted for a president on six occasions. This has been from 1994 then in 1999, 2004, 2009, 2014, and 2019. However, the elections of Bakili Muluzi in 1999; Bingu wa Mutharika in 2004; Peter Mutharika in 2014; and Peter Mutharika again in 2019 had been characterized by gross irregularities.
In fact, the high courts had, in those electoral years, handled seas of electoral complaints. However, the litigations, particularly for 1999, 2004, and 2014 elections failed to yield any significant results that could have affected the legitimacy of the presidency. In 2019, however, electoral petitions to the High Court by presidential contenders in the names of Saulos Chilima and Lazarus Chakwera successfully challenged the election of Arthur Peter Mutharika on 21 May 2019.
For the first time in the history of Malawi, therefore, a presidential election got nullified by a duly constituted court. The recommendations in the court ruling stipulated the need to hold fresh elections in less than 150 days from the day of the ruling on 3rd February 2020.
In this article, it is, therefore, important to underscore the need for fresh elections, which parliament elected to take place on 19 May 2020.
The importunate Chilima and Chakwera
When Muluzi won the 1999 polls, his closest rival, Gwanda Chakuamba attempted to seek judicial intervention, which yielded nothing. Similarly, Bingu wa Mutharika’s electoral victory in 2004 was sternly challenged by John Tembo who came second. Mr. Tembo was not successful either. In 2014, Lazarus Chakwera, who thought had won the elections, contested Peter Mutharika’s victory. He too failed.
The apparent failure to acquire judicial victory by opposition leaders in the previous elections led the country to a particular norm of “executive invincibility”. In fact, it appeared to have created and sustained some undesirable perceptions in almost every Malawian that a ruling party never loses elections and no elections can be overturned.
But today, the electoral legal battle mounted by Chilima and Chakwera in the aftermath of the 21 May 2019 elections has dismantled such retrogressive thinking. The success of the “anti-oppression” also got hordes of moral support from almost every Malawian under the leadership of the Human Rights Defenders Coalition.
Nevertheless, the leadership by these two through the court process has been key. In fact, their importunate attitude has been critical in revealing the coveted political route that Malawians have yearned for so long.
The optimism by the two leaders for political change has been buoyed by a number of factors. First, Chilima’s personal background is void of conventional politics. Similarly, Chakwera, without implying infallibility and holiness, is a trained theologian, who only came into politics by invitation just as Chilima circa six years ago. This makes the two, possibly, short of the hardcore political haggling.
The truth has to be told, though, that in their ‘short’ political careers, Chilima and Chakwera may have learned some cunning political behavior by close association with ‘veteran’ and ‘rolling stone,’ politicians. However, their political statements and the significant belief they have garnered from the biggest constituency of the electorate was away any dirt to their name elevate the ‘political purity’ in them. Moreover, their electoral alliance heightens the optimism for a great Malawi.
Why not DPP?
Technically, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has been in government since 2004. Remember that Joyce Banda’s elevation to the presidency in 2012 only occurred following the death of Bingu wa Mutharika. Although the latter was elected on the United Democratic Front (UDF) ticket in 2004, he dumped it and formed the DPP.
Save for the 2004-2009 electoral cycle, the DPP has been considerably unpopular. To begin with, their political beliefs remain reminiscent of politics of retribution. In their recent political rally held jointly with the UDF at Njamba Freedom Park in Blantyre, for example, nearly every speaker admonished Saulos Chilima and other opposition politicians.
There was no, however, commensuration between expenses associated with the organization of the rally and its quality. Given the pomp and the grand organization, one would be right to peg the rally at circa 100 million. Yet the “Awona Nyekhwe” jibes and the “Mfiti yayikazi” self-exaltations, which constituted the center of the occasion, are all indicative of the absence of political maturity and progress in the self-proclaimed progressive party.
In the second and third weeks of March 2020, the DPP showed the depth of its true colours. In that short spell, a cabinet was dissolved, the president rejected to assent to electoral bills, and unceremoniously and bizarrely effected changes in the leadership of the Malawi Defense Force (MDF).
There is no doubt the DPP government seeks to retain power by using the law. It is not ashamed to rape the constitution and force abortion of its democratic principles it has always claimed to be in possession of. Should it emerge victorious in the forthcoming polls, any predictions of a political insanity and violence cannot be disputed.
While age only constitutes a number, the current situation indicates that political wisdom in President Mutharika, if at all he had any, seems to have evaporated. His political actions exude insipidity, which is facilitating the acceleration of his popularity into an abyss.
Since behavior is learned, even youthful cadres such as Atupele Muluzi and Charles Mchacha, just to name a few, have also grown tongues that spit words full of vulgarity. The most exasperating thing about this is that the political change expected of such a ‘golden generation’ radiates senile political transfiguration. Instead, they should have striven to swim in a political league which believes in practical change.
The significance of the fresh elections
By March 2020, indications of being politically weary with the DPP regime became apparent among most Malawians. However, the electoral alliance by Chilima and Chakwera presents, at least, a realistic chance to uproot Mutharika from power.
The fresh elections, therefore, bear a lot of significance for Malawi’s governance and democracy. The electoral alliance alone signifies, to a great extent, unity of purpose. This is not only about the desire to get rid of President Mutharika but importantly a move to build a new Malawi. The well-articulated manifestos of the two political parties speak volumes of that desire to see, really, political and socio-economic progress in the country.
To a considerable degree, the fresh elections indicate the significance of the rule of law. The court delivered electoral justice at a time when Malawians needed it the most. For the first time in the history of electoral disputes, a presidential election got nullified. Thus, the law has shown its preeminence over any individual or personal powers and selfish ambitions.
It is a fact that election remains critical in enhancing democratic consolidation given its capacity to build the legitimacy, effectiveness, responsiveness, and legality of a government. The fresh elections to be conducted on 19 May 2020 will, thus, should they facilitate regime change, provide a great opportunity to reorganize the political landscape, which at the moment, appears to be developing serious fissures that could swallow whole a human being.
*Njoloma is a regular
contributor to The Lamp. Feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org.