Malawi has been named as the country of the year by the Economist newspaper for “reviving democracy in an authoritarian regime.” The London-based newspaper, which operates in over 80 countries, cited the nullification of the country’s presidential result and the peaceful shift of power that followed as best examples of how democracy should be handled.
In May 2019, Malawi’s constitutional court annulled the presidential election that declared Peter Mutharika a winner and ordered a rerun of the election citing voting irregularities. “It is almost impossible to have an election free of irregularities,” said Justice Healey Potani, who headed the panel.
“However, in the present matter our finding is that the anomalies and irregularities have been so widespread, systematic and grave such that the integrity of the result was seriously compromised, and can’t be trusted as the will of voters of the May 21, 2019 election.”
A re-run of the election saw President Mutharika beaten by President Lazarus Chakwera with 58 percent of the vote. “When Peter Mutharika, the incumbent, was declared the winner of Malawi’s presidential election in May 2019, it seemed a textbook case of rigging. Voting sheets had been altered with Tipp-Ex, a correction fluid. International observers complained only half-heartedly.
“But Malawians fought back. Activists organised peaceful protests. Opposition parties went to the Constitutional Court. In February its judges, apparently after turning down bribes, granted a re-run, which was held on June 23rd,” the newspaper wrote.
It further explained that “there is a blueprint for presidents keen to rig elections. First, use state resources to bribe, fool and bully people before the poll. Once voting starts, stuff the ballot boxes or fiddle the tallies. Afterwards, make sure the army and judges are on your side in case opponents take their case to the streets or to the courts.”
According to the paper, this was not the first time Malawians have stood up for democracy, recalling a mass protest in 2012 when the ruling party’s elites attempted to circumvent the constitution to block the then Vice President, Joyce Banda, from acting as President.
“In 2002 a president died, his death covered up and his corpse flown to South Africa for ‘medical treatment’, to buy time so that his brother could take over. That brother, Peter Mutharika, failed to grab power but was elected two years later and ran for re-election,” according to The Economist.
Aside from the annulment of the country’s presidential results, the report also notes that the southern African nation is the only place where democracy and respect for human rights have improved since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Malawi is still poor, but its people are citizens, not subjects. For reviving democracy in an authoritarian region, it is our country of the year,” it said.
Ahead of Malawi’s 2019 election, the country criminalized handouts for votes. Most political candidates take advantage of the electioneering period to pay out lots of money and gifts to the electorate in a bid to sway their decisions in their favor or against their opponents. Many African countries have tried to stem this habit but only a few have managed to successfully pass a law to criminalize the process.
Malawi passed the Political Parties Act that came to effect on December 1, 2018. The law bans politicians from using cash payments and other incentives to get support ahead of the elections in 2019. It said anyone found in contravention of the law will be required to pay up to 10m Kwacha ($835,980.60) or spend five years in jail.