Malawi’s president faces tough challenge

On May 20, Malawians headed to the polls to vote in the most hotly contested presidential election since the return to multiparty politics in 1993.

In a crowded field of 12 presidential hopefuls, four lead candidates stand a chance of winning as election results continue to trickle in. Incumbent Joyce Banda from the People’s Party (PP) has campaigned aggressively to consolidate her popular mandate after first acceding to the presidency upon the death of her predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika, in 2012. The brother of the former president, Peter Mutharika of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is Banda’s main rival. The two remaining lead candidates are Atupele Muluzi from the United Democratic Front (UDF) and Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP).

Some observers view this tight presidential race as cause for celebration, a sign that Malawi is overcoming its authoritarian past. As noted by the editor of the online newspaper, Nyasa Times, “We never thought that one day we will be in a situation where we cannot actually tell who is going to be our next president.”

Other commentators are more circumspect. For one, all of the lead contenders come with a heavy load of political baggage. Banda started her presidency on a high. One of three female heads of state in sub-Saharan Africa, she made every effort to appeal as a strong and transparent leader. She, for instance, made a show of selling the presidential jet, a symbol of political excess in a country with a GDP per capita of $800 (2012 est.). She further appealed to donors by implementing economic reforms which saw the value of Malawi’s currency, the Kwacha, fall by 25 percent. The rosy glow quickly dissipated, though, as Banda engaged in the same political strong-arming as her predecessors, fuelled run-away inflation through her currency devaluation, and fumbled her response to “cashgate”, a corruption scandal that has brought to light the loss of $40m worth of public funds.

Banda’s rivals offer no clear alternative. Mutharika has promised to put the country on more stable economic footing, but fears abound that his primary aim is to secure his brother Bingu’s legacy by consolidating the Mutharika family hold on power in Malawi.

Muluzi, too, has dubious family ties to account for, despite being the youngest and seemingly least encumbered candidate. His farther, Bakili Muluzi, served two terms as president starting in 1994 and is currently on trial for corruption charges. Muluzi the son has consequently had to shake off allegations that he is benefiting from the family’s misappropriated wealth to fund his campaign.

Finally, Chakwera of the MCP is heading up the party of the former dictator, Hastings Banda. Although he has a fresh cohort of politicians leading his campaign, the memory of atrocities perpetrated under the former MCP regime is still a sore point among Malawi’s older voting population.

The electioneering tactics of these various candidates have raised additional concerns. Banda in particular has come under fire for distributing maize and cattle to voters in rural regions. Malawi’s independent Human Rights Commission has filed a suit with the High Court demanding that Banda account for the funds used to finance these giveaways, which appear to surpass the amount Malawi’s informal patronage norms generally sanction. As one commissioner put it, “Handouts are typical in our politics, but this is so much stuff.”

Violence also marred a campaign season that often more closely resembled a hard fought turf war than an open election contest. Historically, voting in Malawi follows regional lines, but Banda, Mutharika and Muluzi all come from the southern region, which is also the most populous. This situation has raised the electoral stakes considerably. Responding to reported fatalities at a Banda rally held in an opponent’s stronghold, one commentator remarked, “If every partisan grouping declared their area or location a no go zone for rival parties, this country would be divided into hostile territories that will make the practicing of democracy and multi-party politics impossible.”

The bitter campaigns stoked further tensions ahead of Tuesday’s elections as fear spread of possible rigging and more violence. Already on Sunday May 18, protest broke out in Malawi’s capital Lilongwe as crowds responded to rumours of an unidentified vehicle ostensibly carrying marked ballots. Widespread irregularities on election day fuelled additional violence, particularly in Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial hub, where military vehicles were deployed to maintain peace.

The Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) initially affirmed all was under control. By Thursday, however, the MEC concluded it was in “no rush” to announce results amidst allegations of a police raid on a “rigging” house spread. President Banda has joined in the chorus, denouncing “some serious irregularities” and calling for calm. Beyond a simple goodwill call for transparency, this cry for help appears to be a rare sign of an incumbent African president running scared; early reports suggest that Mutharika is in the lead. This is worrying, because it raises the prospect that Banda may be laying the groundwork to reject the election results on the basis that they were manipulated in favour of the opposition.

Whoever emerges the winner, though, it seems clear that heightened electoral competition and uncertainty are not, in and of themselves, synonymous with democratic consolidation in Malawi. There is of course a temptation to celebrate the absence of a dominant incumbent figure with a clear hold on power. However, the elite fragmentation and political tension that has come in its stead carries its own set of liabilities, potentially jeopardizing the prospects for a peaceful transition and for effective future governance capable of addressing Malawi’s many development needs.

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