Could Malawi's historic re-run election inspire Africa?

Opposition Malawi Congress Party leader Lazarus Chakwera addresses supporters after a court annulled the May 2019 presidential vote that declared Peter Mutharika a winner, in Lilongwe, Malawi, on February 4 2020.
Opposition Malawi Congress Party leader Lazarus Chakwera addresses supporters after a court annulled the May 2019 presidential vote that declared Peter Mutharika a winner, in Lilongwe, Malawi, on February 4 2020.
Image: REUTERS/Eldson Chagara

The opposition triumph in Malawi's recent landmark election re-run after last year's fraudulent polls were overturned could spur similar democratic change across the continent, analysts and historians say.

Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party comfortably won the June 23 election with 58.5% of the vote - beating Peter Mutharika, whose re-election last year was nullified by the courts over "widespread and systematic" irregularities.

Chakwera's official inauguration is set for Monday, to coincide with the country's 56th anniversary of independence from Britain.

The election set the impoverished African country apart from many on the continent, making it only the second sub-Saharan African country to have presidential election results overturned in court, after Kenya in 2017.

It was also the first time in Africa that an election re-run has led to the defeat of an incumbent.

The unprecedented political feat was credited to a cohesion of several powerful forces - including the resilience of the judiciary that handed down the historic judgement.

In extraordinary scenes, Constitutional Court judges came sporting bullet-proof jackets and under military escort to deliver the ruling on February 3 overturning Mutharika's re-election.

That was after six months of hearing evidence during a groundswell of civic society-led street protests.

"For a year they persevered with mass demonstrations against the wanton theft of their votes despite threats and repression by the beleaguered and discredited government," said historian Paul Tiyambe Zeleza.

The election result showed that despite the power of incumbency, an organised and smart opposition can win, Zeleza said.

"This election will certainly influence subsequent elections across the African continent," said Grant Masterson, programme manager at the Johannesburg-based Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA).

He expects that elsewhere on the continent "opposition leaders will become emboldened by this success... and ramp up post-election protests against results that did not go in their favour, combined with court challenges."

Opposition leaders from neighbouring countries are drawing inspiration, hailing the "professionalism" displayed by Malawian institutions and "citizens' vigilance".

'Example for Africa' 

Nelson Chamisa, Zimbabwe's main opposition Movement for Democratic Change-Alliance (MDC-A) leader, failed in his legal bid to have the courts overturn the 2018 election which he said was stolen from him by President Emmerson Mnangagwa.

He saluted Malawi's judiciary and security services "for acting as a bulwark against authoritarianism and defending the constitution".

The election is "a source of inspiration to democrats across Africa and a reminder to those with determined leadership, people power, unity of purpose and an undying commitment to democratic values, that no barrier is insurmountable," said Chamisa in a congratulatory message to Chakwera.

Zambia's main opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema, who has lost two consecutive elections, hailed Malawians for having "set a great example for Africa!"

Masterson said Malawi "reminds us that even in the most peaceful of countries, the citizenry will only tolerate so much before they raise their voice in protest".

"When enough citizens stand up, in Malawi, or Sudan and elsewhere, they will eventually bring about change," he said.

Nic Cheeseman, a professor of African democracy at the University of Birmingham, agreed.

"The impressive performance of key institutions, and the country's democratic progress itself, is rooted in the hard work of civil society groups and the efforts of hundreds of thousands of Malawian citizens," Cheeseman said.

Chakwera, the 65-year-old former evangelical preacher, sailed to victory thanks to a nine-party electoral alliance.

Opposition elsewhere in Africa should learn that "dialogue, not division, can offer a genuine path to change, especially in those countries with less favourable institutional conditions," wrote Chatham House's Africa programme projects assistant, Fergus Kell.

"Neighbouring Zambia would certainly do well to heed this example ahead of a pivotal election of its own in 2021."

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