Malawi elections provide a global lesson in democracy

Malawi’s President elect Lazarus Chakwera (L) and First Lady Monica Chakwera (R), leaves his inauguration at the Kamuzu Baracks, the Malawi Defence Force Headquarters, in Lilongwe on July 6, 2020. (Photo by AMOS GUMULIRA / AFP)

While outgoing US President Donald Trump has repeated tantrums at the prospect of leaving the White House, a lesson in democracy from Malawi is worth paying closer attention to. Lazarus Chakwera was inaugurated as Malawi’s sixth president on 6 July 2020 after winning a historic election, which was held after the judiciary overturned the 2019 presidential election and called for a fresh election. This is only the second time this has happened in an African country.

Against all odds, the defeated incumbent — Peter Mutharika — stepped down. Chakwera and his running mate, Saulos Chilima, together achieved more than they had individually in the previous election when they both stood as independent candidates. Chakwera’s Tonse Alliance with Chilima was supported by most other opposition parties. Moreover, the election was held during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic and without external election observers.

With democracy at risk of backsliding across the globe, comprehending the genesis of Malawi’s opposition coalition may prove beneficial to opposition parties and pro-democracy activists across the world.

For Chakwera and Chilima, running separately in 2019 paved the way for Mutharika to remain in power for longer. Mutharika won 38.57% of the vote against Chakwera’s 35.41%. The political reality at the time was complex, but it is obvious in hindsight that senior figures in the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) had to be convinced to step aside and free positions for Chilima and his United Transformation Movement (UTM) colleagues.

The importance of this dynamic for forging a successful coalition cannot be overstated. Chilima set aside his personal political ambitions for the collective good of removing the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) from power. In 2020, the Tonse Alliance’s masterstroke resulted in the coalition securing a sufficiently large winning margin (17 percentage point) that made it all but impossible for governing party to rig the outcome.

In recent elections in Tanzania, the opposition emulated the Malawian coalition experience. Initially, opposition parties were set to head to the polls without an alliance to unseat the governing Chama Cha Mapinduzi. However, the two leading opposition parties, Chadema and ACT-Wazalendo, formed a “loose collaboration” and endorsed a common candidate in each region. Unfortunately, the results did not emulate that of the Tonse Alliance, but the value of forming coalitions to unseat incumbents appears to be gaining traction beyond Malawi.

The MCP and UTM had initially challenged the 2019 election result separately. Lilongwe high court Judge Charles Mkandawire shrewdly requested the respective plaintiffs be joined as parties in the action. Satisfied that the two cases were of a constitutional nature, he needed Chief Justice Andrew Nyirenda’s certification to have them heard in the Constitutional Court. During the Constitutional Court proceedings, political serendipity struck: a bond formed between Chakwera and Chilima as they shared a bench under a tree outside the courtroom during recess.

Coinciding with this judicial process, the chairperson of the Malawi Electoral Commission, Justice Jane Ansah, resigned. The 2020 election may not have taken place had Justice Chifundo Kachale not been appointed as her replacement. Kachale, committed to electoral independence, navigated a combination of political and logistical obstacles, despite taking charge only two weeks before the election. For instance, he was able to persuade the government to release funding for the election and to implement measures to prevent earlier widespread irregularities, including the use of correction fluid on ballots. His role reinforces the truth that both individual agency and institutional structure matter.

The boldness of the Malawian judiciary in checking executive power and upholding critical election-governance structures is laudable. It should catalyse regional pro-democracy activists to advocate for judicial independence, especially where the judiciary has been co-opted and corrupted, like in Zimbabwe. The judiciary’s ability to hold the executive to account is one of the most crucial elements of establishing the rule of law, without which democracy is dead in the water. Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa, during a state visit from Chakwera in early October, failed to appreciate the “legal miracle” that had played out in Malawi or see its positive long-term consequences. He chose instead to selectively note that election observers were unnecessary for democracy. Election observers are typically deployed to help safeguard voting integrity.

After the success of the re-run Malawi election, one would have expected the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to adopt the obvious lessons from the Malawi experience regarding the “home-grown ownership” of their election process during the Covid-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, these were instead subverted, resulting in further electoral instability in the region. For instance, SADC did not deploy a physical SADC electoral observation mission to Tanzania, presumably under the guise of adhering to Covid-19 restrictions. Instead it held a series of virtual engagements with key electoral stakeholders in preparation for the election. These ultimately provided unfruitful for upholding any kind of electoral credibility.

External observers are useful and important, but cannot provide a substitute for the fundamental requirements of independent institutions. Judicial independence, coupled with electoral commission independence, are irreplaceable building blocks for democracy.

In short, there is no easy formula to follow for opposition parties seeking positive election outcomes. Several factors need to be in place simultaneously. However, if opposition parties had to choose one factor to build on from Malawi’s experience, it is the importance of opposition candidates with similar election ideologies putting aside personal ambitions and rivalries in favour of a more collective united stand at the polls.

Craig Moffat is head of programme: governance delivery & impact at Good Governance Africa

This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian here

 

Craig Moffat, PhD is the Head of Programme: Governance Delivery and Impact for Good Governance Africa’s National Security Programme. He has more than 17 years of practical experience working for government institutions and multilateral organisations. He was previously employed by the South African Foreign Service, where he worked extensively at identifying and analysing security threats towards South Africa as well as the southern Africa region. Previously, he was the political advisor for the Pretoria Regional Delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross. He holds a PhD in Political Science from Stellenbosch University.

Lessons from Trump’s dethronement for Africa

A man participating in a protest in support of counting all votes watches U.S. President Donald Trump hold a news conference as the election in the state is still unresolved on November 5, 2020 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. With no winner yet declared in the presidential election, all eyes are on the outcome of a few remaining swing states. Chris McGrath/Getty Images/AFP

In a historic US election, President Donald Trump was ousted from office by Joe Biden. Biden won 50.8% of the popular vote, while Trump still managed 47.5% in the largest voter turnout since 1908. The presidency of Donald Trump is widely viewed as anomalous, a monstrous blip in an otherwise healthy and deeply consolidated democracy. This would be a mistake. A deeper analysis reveals that populism can take root even in societies with relatively broad-based access to political and economic opportunities.

Globalisation, accelerating apace since the end of the Cold War in 1989, has resulted in a highly uneven distribution of the gains from trade and volatility from easy flight of capital. While global GDP has ballooned, inequalities have widened, with real income growth among the top quintile rapidly outpacing middle class wage growth. Local displacement has intensified. Outsourcing or automating jobs in the name of economic efficiency has created political ruptures in historically strong democracies. These dynamics have ploughed the soil for populism to take root. The populist playbook is to exploit the fears and disappointments of the economically marginalised and subvert democratic institutions in the process.

Trump’s tantrums over alleged vote-rigging and repeated court threats are simply part of the script. The phenomenon of democratic backsliding has so arrested the attention of scholars that between 2011 and 2018 alone, 1,700 academic articles were published on the subject. In the 40 years prior, a total of 1,500 articles covering threats to democracy appeared. The fact that Biden has won out against Trump may provide some reprieve for friends of democracy across the globe, but complacency is unwarranted. Otherwise strong democratic equilibria tend to be disrupted by socio-economic inequality, financial shocks, the exploitation of extreme political views by technological interference (read Cambridge Analytica) and the resultant perpetuation of echo-chamber social-media politics.

None of these trends show any sign of abating. Worryingly, they are also mutually reinforcing, which can create path-dependent trajectories away from democracy. As scholar Daron Acemoglu has pointed out, the global factors that have contributed to growing domestic inequality in the US have not been addressed, and policymakers are far from a consensus on how this can be done. Biden’s work is cut out for him to forge bi-partisan agreement that, for instance, higher federal minimum wages and a more redistributive tax system may be desirable. Even with that in place, though, the global trend towards distrusting scientific facts and resenting elites is strengthening. Populism thrives in such contexts.

Perhaps the most concerning element of Trump’s ascendancy was the willingness of Abraham Lincoln’s 150-year-old party to acquiesce to Trump’s proposition to ride on a Republican ticket. And, typical of populist incoherence, most of what he stood for and campaigned on were diametrically opposed to orthodox republican positions such as free trade. Nonetheless, as one commentator put it, Biden has ‘sleep-walked’ into the White House and the embers of democracy are still alive in the US. Notwithstanding the warning to avoid complacency, it remains good news because, on average, democracy causes economic growth. Why? Because its ability to remove leaders like Trump is one of its enduring attractions.

Consolidated democracy, for all its inefficiencies, respects the rule of law, insists on the separation of powers, punishes corruption, and gives the citizenry a voice that produces proper accountability from the elite. This institutional strength, in turn, results in economic dynamism, as contracts are honoured and businesses can flourish. Responsible players are crowded in while irresponsible players are either crowded out or deterred from engaging in corrupt activities. In a nutshell, good governance is more likely to take root in the context of robust political competition where the opposition has a fair and credible chance of winning elections.

While the world breathes a momentary sigh of relief, African countries continue to fight for democracy to take root at all, never mind worrying about whether it will consolidate. While the evidence suggests that democratisation across the continent is advancing, on average, a number of important red flags punctuate the trend. Tanzania, soon to be among the most populous countries on the continent, held its general elections on 28 October 2020. Incumbent President John Magufuli successfully rigged the process to secure for himself an incredible 84% of the vote while the main opposition managed to eke out 13%. According to the Polity V dataset, the country’s democratic score improved from 2 (out of a possible 10) to 4 from 2014 to 2015 (the year in which Magufuli came to power).

We expect that figure to move below zero once the next set of figures is released. Not only did Magufuli rig the elections, he has ruled with an iron fist of fear, initially rooting out some petty corruption – his populist ticket – but he has since crushed civil liberties and shut down opportunities for opposition parties to engage in politics. Post-election, Tundu Lissu, chief opposition leader who survived an assassination attempt in 2017, has had to flee the country after calling for protests against the election results; this in the midst of reports that at least 150 opposition leaders and members have been arrested since 27 October, with at least 18 remaining in custody. The frequency of abductions and/or forced disappearances has ticked up significantly since Magufuli came to power.

 

Economic growth has been sclerotic under Magufuli’s rule as he continues to be suspicious of the private sector and insists on white elephant megaprojects such as the Stiegler’s Gorge hydropower project that the country cannot afford. GDP per capita growth initially fell to 3% in 2015 (from 3.6% the year before) before recovering to 3.7% the following year. It has since fallen to 2.7%.

Magufuli came to the presidency from a weak base within the CCM – the liberation movement of Julius Nyerere – and is working hard to purge elites from within his ruling coalition who would otherwise ensure some degree of power-sharing. There is every reason to expect that Magufuli will attempt to clinch a third term in office, which would violate the constitution. He would join a long list of those who long ago eschewed term limits, a fundamental governance limit on executive power. A fundamental problem is not only that autocratic rule tends to result in misery and squalor for the majority, but that governance-dismantling autocrats seem to spur each other on across borders.

Zambia’s elections are set for 2021, and President Edgar Lungu appears to be taking a leaf out of the Magufuli playbook but with some variety to spice up the mix, drawing on Emmerson Mnangagwa’s Zimbabwean script too. It appears that his strategy for rigging the elections is to amend the constitution to allow coalition formation (instead of a runoff second ballot between the top two candidates) in the case of no candidate winning more than 50% of the vote. He brought this infamous “Bill 10” to parliament at the end of October but it failed (though by a margin of only 6 votes). At least this strategy indicates that Lungu is scared of losing the popular vote and does not have Magufuli-like power to simply rig the election to an arbitrary winning proportion of his pre-selected choice.

The opposition has a strong likelihood of winning the election, though Hakainde Hichilema – the leader of the opposition – is undoubtedly keen to avoid more jail time at the hands of Lungu’s trumped-up charges (as has happened before). Analysts expect that Lungu, on failing to win Bill 10, will now simply abolish the current voters’ register and create a new one more favourable to his prospects. The graph below indicates a surge of violence around the 2016 elections that saw Lungu gain a second term in office. As Natasha Chilundika has written over at Democracy in Africa, we really need to avoid a repetition of this come 2021.

 

Slightly further afield in Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni has been in power since 1986. Still going strong, according to scholar Moses Khisa, Museveni has “run roughshod over important constitutional and institutional safeguards, checks and balances that were enshrined in what was a relatively progressive and liberal [1995] constitution”. Museveni is edging in on the 38-year rule exercised by Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, and the 37-year reign by Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (both upended by their own ruling coalitions in 2017). Museveni’s assault on democracy began in 2003 with an eradication of constitutional term limits.

In addition to subverting apparently democratic institutions to advance authoritarian ends (by co-opting and corrupting the judiciary, for instance), he has also used external security threats as a cover under which to criminalise otherwise legitimate political activities. Museveni has had Kizza Besigye, his main opposition, arrested more than 1,000 times. A period of relative calm prevailed between 2007 and 2013, but violence against citizens has been on the rise, with incidents this year alone matching the 2006 data. The prospect of commercial oil revenues will further embolden Museveni’s autocratic stranglehold through enabling him to distribute patronage to a carefully selected circle of insiders and repress outsiders.

 

On the subject of Mugabe and dos Santos, their removal tells an important story. Autocrats who successfully consolidate power are almost always only removed by an internal coup or death in office. Very few in contemporary history have been upended by democratic forces. The risk of further autocratic consolidation is, therefore, immediately at hand. In Russia, Joseph Stalin’s death did not suddenly usher in democratic rule. Vladimir Putin’s stranglehold over the ruling coalition in Russia today is evidence enough to show that new autocrats are likely to gain ascendancy and the fight for democracy to take root requires far more than the removal of one autocrat. It requires the slow, hard work of establishing governance institutions that respect the rule of the people by the people.

In both Zimbabwe and Angola, new autocrats have arisen. Mnangagwa and Lourenco respectively came to power through removing their long-standing leaders who had placed family members ahead of party loyalists, threatening their access to power and rents. One may have expected that some kind of power-sharing mechanism would be re-established in both Zanu-PF and the MPLA respectively, but there is little cause for optimism on the basis of the current evidence. Both incumbents enjoy vast access to resource wealth, again enabling the distribution of rents to a select circle of loyalists and careful elimination of internal and external threats to their rule.

Citizen attempts to protest against grand corruption in Zimbabwe around July this year resulted in a rapid rise in disappearances, abductions, torture and arrests – these have not yet been captured in the data below, but the graph still paints a terrifying picture of the militarised regime’s willingness to exercise repression to prevent any accountability. With elections set for 2023, we can either expect to see further violence escalation or an indefinite postponement of elections altogether.

 

A similar pattern emerges from Angola, with violence against citizens increasing again in the aftermath of the 2017 elections that saw Lourenco come to power through a rigged election. Unlike Magufuli’s CCM, though, the MPLA chose a winning figure of nearer to 60% than 80%.

 

For all one might say about the Trumpian episode in US politics and its dangerous flirtation with autocracy, the fact is that the vote matters in the US and Trump is out (or at least probably will be with Republicans now also losing patience with his intransigence). Americans have exercised their voice. Moreover, no matter whether one resonates with Kamala Harris’s political views, it is a significant feat that an African-American woman has ascended to the White House (and the first woman vice-president in US history) despite so much underlying racial tension in the country.

It is easy to be despondent about the deep structural divides that threaten to disrupt the US democratic equilibrium, but the fact that it has stood firm should encourage us to war against the proliferating autocratic threats to democracy in many African countries. Of course, the continent is not without hope, and the general trend is arguably positive. But it would be amiss of us to ignore the warning signs in Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe, not to mention Ethiopia (in which the risk of a full-blown civil war escalates daily), the DRC, Nigeria and Mozambique. Mozambique, in the context of poor governance, deep local grievances and a poverty trap, is fertile soil for the rise of violent extremism. It’s an explosive cocktail that risks spilling over into neighbouring countries.

 

One recent light in these otherwise dark trajectories, though, is Malawi. Small and poor, for sure, the country is wracked by a history of corruption and extensive poverty. Nonetheless, when Lazarus Chakwera came to power earlier in 2020, in the midst of a global Covid-19 pandemic, he showed that it is possible for the judiciary to stand firm against an incumbent executive bent on staying in power and for the people to vote that president out in an election re-run. This should be celebrated loudly, if cautiously, and remind us that it all starts with governance.

As Dr Grieve Chelwa has quipped, SCOTUS might do well to cite the Malawian court case should Trump successfully get to the Supreme Court over his allegation that the US election results were rigged. We should never give up in our quest to build governance institutions that prevent the abuse of power and give the people a voice.

 

Dr Ross Harvey is Director of Research & Programmes at GGA. Ross is a natural resource economist and policy analyst, and he has been dealing with governance issues in various forms across this sector since 2007. He has a PhD in economics from the University of Cape Town, and his thesis research focused on the political economy of oil and institutional development in Angola and Nigeria.

SADC calls the Tanzania election more of the same; Did we expect anything different?

Tanzania’s incumbent President and presidential candidate of ruling party Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) John Magufuli (C) waves as he arrives to give a speech during the official launch of the party’s campaign for the October general election at the Jamhuri stadium in Dodoma, Tanzania, on August 29, 2020. – Voters will also select new MPs and ward councillors when they go to the polls on October 28. (Photo by ERICKY BONIPHACE / AFP)

It has been a week since Tanzania held its general election. As the dust settles, a closer examination of the Southern African Development Community’s (SADC) response and validation of the election outcome is necessary. According to the National Electoral Commission (NEC), incumbent President John Magufuli won 84% of the vote, while opposition leader Tendu Lissu received 13%. As tends to happen after any election, the attention shifts from the NEC’s announcement of the results to the various election observer reports. These election observer reports are an important part of the election verification process, as they tend to either endorse or raise pertinent questions about the validity of the election outcome.

SADC did not deploy a physical SADC Electoral Observation Mission (SEOM). Instead it held a series of virtual engagements with key electoral stakeholders in preparation for the election due to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. After the success of the re-run Malawi election, it was expected that SADC would adopt lessons learnt from the Malawi experience regarding the “home-grown ownership” of their election process during the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, the lessons were not heeded and instead, the status quo was perpetuated. Recently, the SADC region has experienced several contested elections marred by controversy, leading to some seeking judicial recourse.

The most turbulent have been those in the Comoros, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Malawi and Zimbabwe. Despite calls from both opposition and other electoral observation teams claiming electoral malfeasance and irregularities in the election process itself, SADC followed its tried and tested formula of endorsing the election outcomes, seemingly based on a provision that the election itself was held.

Controversial SADC Election Endorsing Statements

SADC has a chequered past in relation to issuing endorsing and congratulatory statements to the victors of contested elections, despite claims of electoral irregularities being highlighted by several stakeholders throughout the election process. For example:

i. The then SADC Chairperson, President Hage Geingob of Namibia, issued several congratulatory statements:

Comoros: “The Southern African Development Community (SADC) congratulates the people and government of the Union of Comoros, and the National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI), for the peaceful elections for president and governors of the country, which were held on 24 March 2019.”

DRC: “On behalf of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and on my behalf as the Chairperson, we congratulate the President-elect of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mr Felix Tshisekedi, following the national elections that were conducted on 30 December 2018 and the ruling of the Constitutional Court on 19 January 2019.

Malawi: “Congratulations H.E Peter Mutharika @APMutharika on your re-election and swearing in as President of the Republic of Malawi. Namibia looks forward to deepening ties with Malawi in the interest of shared prosperity in the SADC Region.”

ii. President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, in his capacity as the then SADC Chairperson, issued the following congratulatory message:

Zimbabwe: “Congratulations to His Excellency Emmerson Mnangagwa on his election as President of Zimbabwe. We urge the people of Zimbabwe to accept the outcome of the election, or follow the legal route should they wish to challenge it. We look forward to great working relations with you.”

iii. Finally, President Mokgweetsi Masisi of Botswana, in his capacity as the Chairperson of the SADC Organ, issued the following message:

Tanzania: “Following the General Elections held on 28 October 2020, SADC applauds the people of the United Republic of Tanzania (URT) for once again demonstrating their commitment to democracy by exercising their right to vote in a calm and tranquil manner, a progressive build-up to the 6th multiparty elections since 1995.

On behalf of SADC, and indeed on my own behalf, I wish to take this opportunity to once again, commend the President-Elect of the United Republic of Tanzania, Dr John Pombe Magufuli on his resounding electoral victory and wish the incoming government a peaceful and successful term in office.”

What is clear from these SADC election statements is that there is a certain line and/or template that is used by SADC when it comes to congratulating election victors, despite calls from various stakeholders calling for an election outcome to be verified or nullified because of certain documented irregularities during the election period and on the election day itself. When examining Tanzania as an election case study, the pre-election period was fraught with claims of irregularities including intimidation of election  contenders, election violence, human rights abuses, NEC partiality, election campaign suspensions, limiting election observer participation, restricting media freedoms and a host of other incumbency abuses.

All these claims were highlighted and shared by numerous stakeholders at various times throughout the election period, and it is fair to assume that some of these same stakeholders were part of the SADC virtual stakeholder engagements.  So even though there may not have been a physical SADC presence during the election period, their virtual engagements should have shed some light regarding any perceived electoral malfeasance or irregularities which SADC should have taken more seriously.

Instead, in a pre-election statement  issued on 27 October, President Masisi stated:

“I wish to commend the people of the United Republic of Tanzania for the peaceful and exemplary manner in which they have conducted themselves during the election campaign period, despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, I urge all citizens to maintain the same spirit as they cast their ballots.”

Unless Masisi was ill informed, which in itself is worrying and unfortunate, it is rather difficult to believe his statement was sincere. The challenges experienced in the election campaign period were much more than simply the COVID-19 pandemic. His failure to acknowledge or address documented electoral malfeasance and irregularities seems to be part and parcel of SADC’s inability to hold member states accountable for their non-adherence to good governance practices, therefore indirectly endorsing incumbency abuses. This hands-off type approach does not bode well for the expansion and manifestation of good governance practices in the region.

SADC as an organisation should learn from other election observation teams who participated in the election process in Tanzania and are largely agreed that there was indeed electoral malfeasance and irregularities. The following are observations from other election observation teams:

  1. Tanzania Elections Watch – The Panel of Eminent Persons, drawn from East and Southern Africa, issued a statement differing in tone and substance from that of SADC. They condemned the violence that had escalated leading up to voting day, and also raised concerns over the heavy-handed force shown by security forces and the restriction of communication services ahead of the election. Their election day report stated: We are concerned that the incidents reported so far in the process bear questions on the credibility of the electoral process.
  2. Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in AfricaTanzania’s political environment has undergone several pertinent changes. Under the current government, the holding of political rallies and public gatherings has been severely limited by the Tanzania Police Force (TPF). While the Mission noted conflicting reports on the existence of an official ban on such gatherings, the effect has been the same whether such a decree existed or not.
  3. The United Kingdom’s Minister for Africa The UK is concerned by widespread allegations of interference in the country’s elections, including pre-filled ballot boxes and party agents being denied entry to polling stations. We are also deeply troubled by the reports of violence and heavy-handed policing in the elections, including the arrest of opposition political leaders.
  4. The US Embassy in TanzaniaIrregularities and the overwhelming margins of victory raise serious doubts about the credibility of the results… as well as concerns about the government of Tanzania’s commitment to democratic values.

In short, if the SADC leadership fails to correct their long-held tradition of non-interference, this path will serve to further widen the gap between itself and the citizenry of member states who expect, as seen in Tanzania, an adherence to principles of good governance. If they continue to perpetuate the status quo and create this schism, the trust and respect for the organisation and the ability of the regional leadership will continue to wane to the detriment of all, and any well-intended regional good governance practices. The SADC leadership should formulate and implement means to safeguard against driving a trust deficit between the citizenry and the SADC entity.

 

Craig Moffat, PhD is the Head of Programme: Governance Delivery and Impact for Good Governance Africa’s National Security Programme. He has more than 17 years of practical experience working for government institutions and multilateral organisations. He was previously employed by the South African Foreign Service, where he worked extensively at identifying and analysing security threats towards South Africa as well as the southern Africa region. Previously, he was the political advisor for the Pretoria Regional Delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross. He holds a PhD in Political Science from Stellenbosch University.

President Mnangagwa eschews election observers for a reason

Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa attends a meeting with civil society organisations on August 22, 2020 at the State House in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Photo: Zinyange Auntony/AFP 

On a recent state visit to Zimbabwe, President Emmerson Mnangagwa praised Malawi for successfully holding its election re-run without the presence of foreign observers and questioned whether they were required for polls in the region.

Sound familiar?

In 2011, the then British Ambassador to Zimbabwe sought clarity on whether Western observers would be allowed into the country. Mugabe answered explicitly in the negative: “Zimbabwe cannot invite people who have imposed sanctions on her to be observers because by imposing sanctions, Britain has demonstrated her dislike of one side while favouring the other.” Since then Zimbabwe has remained under sanctions from Britain, the European Union and the United States of America. Most international election observers are commonly drawn from these countries and are generally deployed in the region to help safeguard voting integrity.

Mnangagwa’s sentiment runs very similar to his predecessor’s when complimenting Malawi. Mnangagwa stated: “Here is a country which has held … elections without the United Nations, without SADC and almost all of these civil society organisations observing the elections, but they were successful, peaceful elections conducted by Malawi on its own … This makes us think whether it’s still necessary in future for SADC countries to look for supervisors from across oceans.”

While the success of Malawi’s re-run election should be commended, it must be noted that the election took place under extraordinary circumstances, namely the Covid-19 pandemic, making the absence of international observers more an act of fate than design. Travel restrictions, quarantine rules and health considerations in connection with Covid-19 also impacted the non-attendance of international election observers. However, it remains a seminal election because it was the first on the continent held as a result of a court overturning an election result.

We must question Mnangagwa’s true intentions for questioning foreign election observer teams deployed in his country.

In the absence of foreign election observers, how can Zimbabwe’s future elections be protected? Who all falls into the foreign election observers’ basket? Does it include the African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) observer teams as well? Fortunately, for the sake of good governance and accountability, it is highly unlikely that either the continental or regional organisation would agree to a request to not deploy their election observer teams in the absence of Covid-19 restrictions.

Lessons from Malawi for Zimbabwe

Instead of subverting the lessons from the Malawi experience, Mnangagwa might rather learn and benefit from them, which may assist in the consolidation of democracy and good governance in Zimbabwe.

While there was the full participation of all political parties, doubts persisted relating to the timing of the re-run election, lack of international assistance and observers. A key lesson was Malawi’s adoption of a ‘home-grown ownership’ of the election process. While there were no international election observers present, embassies, the UN and international organisations with a pre-existing presence in the country were accredited as observers. There were also national election observers from about 20 different local stakeholders, including civil society groups, academia, ecclesiastical and human rights organisations. Most agreed that the re-run election process and results were legitimate. Malawi should be applauded for the manner, under very trying circumstances, in which it conducted a credible election.

Mnangagwa fails to appreciate the positive long-term effects of the ‘legal miracle’ that played out in the 2020 Malawi election, that was extraordinary because as stated it was the first on the continent held as a result of a court overturning an election result. Moreover, the incumbent was defeated and stepped down. The boldness of the Malawian judiciary in checking executive power and upholding critical election governance structures is laudable. It should catalyse regional pro-democracy activists to advocate for judicial independence, especially where the judiciary has been co-opted and corrupted, as in Zimbabwe. One should read between the lines when Mnangagwa focuses only on the absence of foreign observers rather than on the fact that the incumbent stepped down. The judiciary’s ability to hold the executive to account is one of the most crucial elements of establishing the rule of law.

A further lesson to be adopted from Malawi’s election relates to the finalisation of election reports typically produced by international election observer teams. A fundamental limitation was exposed in that most international observers compiled their reports based on the formal framework of the election, including the pre-and post-election periods. However, from the Malawi experience, the major contestation arose from the ballot counting process itself in the 2019 elections. By the time the results had been tallied, most observers had either left the country or completed their deployment and had submitted their election observation reports. This resulted in a situation whereby the international election observation reports unwittingly created the misconception that the election was held in a free, fair, transparent and credible manner and was in fact used as a justification by former President Mutharika to endorse his flawed election victory.

Herein lies the lesson: the international election observers may have unwittingly contributed to the polarised situation that followed. Rather than simply questioning the efficacy of international election observers, regarding upcoming elections in the region, Mnangagwa should instead call for a careful study of the Malawian experience. This would help him to better understand the important lessons for future international election observer deployments as well as to develop measures to ensure that the irregularities of Malawi’s 2019 election and Zimbabwe’s 2018 elections do not create opportunities for the incumbent to abuse.

Playing the blame game

Mnangagwa’s utterances betray the fact that his regime would rather avoid electoral accountability altogether. Nonetheless, the fact that he commented at all suggests that we can assume that he harbours some residual concerns about the validity of future election outcomes in Zimbabwe.

Ironically, if indeed international election observers were stopped from observing, who will he blame for foreign interference and where will he find a plausible excuse for possible electoral fraud? Mnangagwa stated: “It’s a question which we are still interrogating.” For the sake of good governance and the consolidation of democracy, we can only hope in his statement he is referring to the “royal we” and does not include the other SADC regional leaders.

This article first appeared in Democracy In Africa here

Craig Moffat, PhD is the Head of Programme: Governance Delivery and Impact for Good Governance Africa’s National Security Programme. He has more than 17 years of practical experience working for government institutions and multilateral organisations. He was previously employed by the South African Foreign Service, where he worked extensively at identifying and analysing security threats towards South Africa as well as the southern Africa region. Previously, he was the political advisor for the Pretoria Regional Delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross. He holds a PhD in Political Science from Stellenbosch University.

Historic Malawi election provides lessons for opposition parties across the continent

Saulos Chilima and Lazarus Chakwera outside the court. PHOTO: EMMANUEL SIMPOKOLWE

On 6 July 2020, Lazarus Chakwera was inaugurated as Malawi’s sixth president after winning the 2020 Malawi election, an election that was extraordinary because it was the first on the continent held as a result of a court overturning an election result. Moreover, the incumbent was defeated and stepped down.

Chakwera and his running mate, Saulos Chilima, achieved more together than they had individually in the previous election when they stood as independent candidates, validating their decision to run on the same ticket.

Interestingly, both Chakwera and former President Arthur Mutharika of the Democratic Progress Party (DPP) formed alliances with other parties. Chakwera’s alliance with Chilima was supported by most other opposition parties and was called the Tonse Alliance, while Mutharika formed an alliance with Atupele Muluzi (United Democratic Front).

Understanding the genesis of the coalition may prove beneficial to opposition parties and pro-democracy activists, as the lessons could strengthen and deepen democracy and good governance on the continent.

Lessons learnt

There are several important lessons from the coalition that proved advantageous to the Tonse Alliance. To obtain a better understanding of the Tonse Alliance and strides made, we review the events that took place between the disputed election of 2019 and the successful 2020 election:

Stronger together – unity for change

Had Chakwera and Chilima formed a coalition for the 2019 elections, they would have garnered more votes than Mutharika. Their decision to run separately paved the way for Mutharika to remain in power longer. While this option may seem simple numerically, it was more difficult in reality, as senior figures within Chakwera’s Malawi Congress Party (MCP) had to be convinced to step aside and free positions for Chilima and his United Transformation Movement (UTM) colleagues. For the re-run 2020 election, Chilima importantly set aside his personal political ambitions for the collective good of removing the DPP from power.

Initially, the MCP and UTM separately challenged the 2019 election result but Lilongwe High Court Judge Charles Mkandawire requested that the respective plaintiffs be joined as parties in the action. Mkandawire indicated that he was satisfied that the two cases were constitutional in nature, and needed Chief Justice Andrew Nyirenda’s certification, in accordance with Section 9(3) of the Courts Act, to have them be heard in the Constitutional Court.

During the Constitutional Court proceedings, a case of political serendipity occurred: a bond between Chakwera and Chilima formed as they shared a bench under a tree during a recess. Photographs of them seemingly cracking jokes went viral in mainstream and social media. This unplanned occurrence may have been the beginning of their alliance journey.

Importance of an impartial and independent electoral management body

The resignation of former Malawi Electoral Commission chairperson Justice Jane Ansah was a pivotal development. The 2020 election might not have taken place had Justice Chifundo Kachale not been appointed as the new MEC chairperson. Kachale brilliantly navigated a combination of political and logistical obstacles, even though he took over only two weeks before the election.

Judicial Independence

Malawi was able to hold the 2020 election only because the Constitutional Court  and later the Supreme Court ruled that the 2019 polls had been flawed. In addition, the court ruled that the victor in the presidential elections must win 50% + 1 of the vote, and also set out a timeframe for holding fresh elections.

The court’s overriding of the 2019 election results has set an important legal precedent that should find some footing in courts across the region. This precedent may act as a catalyst to embolden regional pro-democracy activists in other countries to address issues of poor governance and instances of perceived electoral fraud.

Neutrality of the security organs

The refusal of the security organs to be exploited to defy court orders and the popular will of the citizens stands in marked contrast to Zimbabwe’s electoral facades. Mutharika did in fact seek to bring the armed forces into play by firing the head of the military, General Vincent Nundwe, and his deputy, Clement Namangale, and replacing them with more pliable officers. Thankfully, the military has demonstrated a history of defending the rule of law during political transitions, and stood firm on this occasion too.

Minimise potential to rig the outcome

Past elections have demonstrated the benefits of obtaining large winning margins, as some incumbents may be impeded from rigging the result, or cannot rig it by a large margin and maintain credibility. A recent case in point was Belarus’s Aleksandr Lukashenko rigging elections, resulting in an outrageous winning margin of 80.1%. In 2019, Mutharika won 38.57% of the vote, against Chakwera’s 35.41%. However, in 2020, this masterstroke resulted in the coalition securing a winning margin so large (58% – 41% = 17%) that it was all but impossible for the ruling party to rig the outcome.

Home-grown ownership

Malawians took “home-grown ownership” of the 2020 election process, in contrast to past experiences. Although the international community had raised concerns about the country’s ability to hold elections in a free, fair, transparent and credible manner, Malawi proved that it could be achieved even without external observers. Although the disputed 2019 result was seemingly endorsed by foreign electoral observer teams, on this occasion – due to COVID-19 restricting the presence of foreign observers – nothing was left to chance and local observers were called on to endorse the election, holding the government accountable.

Conclusion

The developments in Malawi should inspire pro-democracy activists across the continent. However, replicating the outcome in other contexts may prove challenging if the factors that led to Malawi’s outcome are not properly heeded.

Several countries in the region are preparing to hold elections but are starting from a more compromised position. For instance, in Zambia, the courts have faced criticism for endorsing President Edgar Lungu to run for a second term as president in the 2021 elections. In Tanzania, authorities have stepped up repression of opposition parties, non-governmental organisations and the media ahead of the country’s general elections in October 2020.

In short, there is no formula for opposition parties seeking positive election outcomes. As highlighted above, several factors need to be in place simultaneously. However, if opposition parties had to choose one factor to build their foundation on, from Malawi’s experience, it is the importance of opposition candidates with similar ideologies putting aside their personal ambitions and rivalries in favour of a united stand at the polls.

This article originally appeared in the Centre for Investigative Journalism Malawi (CIJM).

 

Craig Moffat, PhD is the Head of Programme: Governance Delivery and Impact for Good Governance Africa. He has more than 17 years of practical experience working for government institutions and multilateral organisations. He was previously employed by the South African Foreign Service, where he worked extensively at identifying and analysing security threats towards South Africa as well as the southern Africa region. Previously, he was the political advisor for the Pretoria Regional Delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross. He holds a PhD in Political Science from Stellenbosch University.
Josephine Chinele is currently a Fellow (Biomedical HIV Prevention Advocate) at the Pakachere Institute of Health and Development Communication in Blantyre, Malawi. A multi-award winning journalist, she has worked as a news, features and investigative journalist for newspapers, radio and television platforms in Malawi and South Africa. She has been awarded several health journalism fellowships in the area of HIV and AIDS, health and human rights.

Governance implications of the Malawi election June 2020 rerun

Opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP) leader Lazarus Chakwera was declared winner of the June 2020 presidential election re-run with 58.75 percent of the vote according to the electoral commission. PHOTO GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP

Late on Saturday 27 June, 2020, the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) Chairperson, Justice Chifundo Kachale, formally announced the election results. Dr Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) had won the election with 58.57% of the vote. Chakwera received 2.6 million votes, while incumbent President Arthur Peter Mutharika of the Democratic Progress Party (DPP) received 1.75 million votes (39.4%). The voter turnout was 64.8%. This election comes after a year-long battle for the independence of Malawi’s democratic institutions, and should be seen as an important milestone in the movement towards democratic consolidation on the continent. It also provides a host of potential lessons for both policymakers and activists at the local, regional, and international level, on how to best support developing nations in times of constitutional crisis.

Malawi’s Constitutional Court had struck down the previous election results, citing widespread irregularities, including the use of correction fluid on ballots. The court was harshly critical of the manner in which the MEC handled the May 2019 election, finding the former Chairperson, Jane Ansah, and her commissioners incompetent. The election results triggered months of nationwide protests, calling for new elections and demanding Ansah’s removal. Mutharika responded by appointing Justice Kachale, who vowed the rerun election would be free, fair and credible.

The voter turnout in May 2019 was 77.4%. Mutharika won 38.57% of the vote, against Chakwera’s 35.41%. Chakwera and his Vice President, Dr Saulos Chilima (United Transformation Movement), together achieved more than they did individually in the previous election when they both stood as independent candidates, thus validating their decision to run on the same ballot ticket. Both Chakwera and Mutharika had allied with other parties. Chakwera’s alliance with Chilima was supported by most other opposition parties and was called Tonse Alliance (“all of us” in the local Chichewa language). Mutharika had formed an alliance with Atupele Muluzi (United Democratic Front). The election result divides the country into two with the MCP-UTM alliance gaining a majority in all districts of the northern and central provinces, while the DPP-UDF alliance gained a majority in all districts of the southern province.

In his official announcement, Justice Kachale was careful to clarify that all complaints they had received were handled at the local level of election staff at the polling stations, with the exception of one complaint, which had to be elevated to the national level. The MEC stated it had received dozens of complaints in the days following the election, most from the outgoing DPP government. Their complaints related to instances of violence against party representatives and safety concerns at some of the polling stations. The complaints of violence were considered criminal, and were dispatched to the police for further investigation. The complaints concerning security for party representatives at the polling stations were rejected, citing that security arrangements had been well taken care of by the military and the police.

Outgoing President Mutharika addressed the nation on Saturday afternoon where he implicitly accepted his defeat. However, this did not stop him from characterising the rerun as the worst election in Malawi’s history before urging the people to accept the results of the MEC and the country to move on as one Malawi and one people.

Implications

The impact of this election process, both on the region and the continent, should not be downplayed.

It is only the second time on the continent where the judiciary has overturned a presidential election and called for a fresh election. The first was in Kenya in 2017, but saw the opposition boycotting the rerun election. In Malawi, there was full participation of all political parties. Doubts were raised about the timing of the rerun election, and lack of international assistance and international observers. Contrary to these doubts,  the rerun election process appears to have been largely positive, with the MEC ensuring transparency and verification, thus legitimising the outcome.

While there were no international observers present, invitations had been sent but could not be honoured due to tight time constraints. Travel restrictions, quarantine rules and health considerations in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic also impacted the non-attendance of international observers. However, embassies, the UN and international organisations with a presence in the country were accredited as observers. There were also national election observers from about 20 different local stakeholders, including civil society organisations, ecclesiastical organisations, human rights organisations and academia. Most were in agreement that the rerun election process and results were legitimate.

Lessons learned

An important lesson to be taken from this election process is the manner in which the Malawians adopted a “home-grown ownership” of this election process. While the international community had raised concerns about the country’s ability to hold elections in a free, fair, transparent and credible manner, Malawi proved that it could be done successfully. Malawi should be commended for the manner, under very trying circumstances, in which it conducted a credible rerun election.

A major positive long-term effect that the “legal miracle” relating to this rerun election process will have on the region will be the imbedding of the idea that it is possible to trust the judiciary to be professional and independent. An important legal precedent has been set that should find some footing in courts across the region. This important precedent, overriding the May 2019 election results, may act as a catalyst to embolden regional activists, lawyers and democracy advocates in other countries in dealing with issues of poor governance and instances of perceived electoral fraud. The outcome of the court judgment may be indicative of the further consolidation of democracy and good governance in Malawi.

A further lesson from Malawi’s election rerun relates to the finalisation of election reports produced by international observer teams. In hindsight, their observation processes can be criticised as most observers compile their reports based on the formal framework of the election, including the pre- and post-election periods. However, the major contestation arose from the counting process itself. Once the results had been tallied, most observers had either left the country or completed their deployment and had submitted their election observation reports. As a result, the endorsing election observation reports unwittingly created the misconception that the election was held in a free, fair, transparent and credible manner and was used as a justification by Mutharika to endorse his flawed election victory. Thus, it may be argued, the international election observers may have contributed to the polarised situation that followed. With regards to upcoming elections in the region, election observer missions should study the Malawian case carefully to gather important lessons for future election observer deployments.

Dr Craig Moffat is Head of Programme: Governance Delivery and Impact at Good Governance Africa.
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