On 28 June 2020, Lazarus Chakwera was sworn in as the new President of Malawi following the official announcement of his victory in the 23 June 2020 rerun election the day prior. His victory is a significant step forward for Malawi’s democratic institutions and marks the first true handover of power since the country transitioned to democracy in 1994, and only the second since the country gained independence in 1964.
The contentious 23 June presidential election was held due to a Constitutional Court ruling in February which found that the previous May 2019 election was fraught with enough irregularities to undermine the integrity of the result in which the incumbent Peter Mutharika narrowly won by 38.6% to Chakwera’s 35.4%. Importantly, the Constitutional Court did not rule that the election had been rigged or that widespread intentional fraud had taken place, but rather that it failed to be meet the necessary standards. This is an important distinction as firstly, it did not accuse any individual or party of criminality and secondly, it marked a clear break from Malawi’s willingness to accept mediocrity in its democratic institutions. Notably, this is the second such ruling in sub-Saharan Africa in recent years after Kenya’s Supreme Court made a similar ruling about the integrity of that country’s 2017 presidential election. However, in the Kenyan case, the incumbent won the rerun election, but the integrity of the victory was reinforced.
The integrity of Malawi’s May 2019 election was disputed from the moment the electoral commission announced the results, leading to months of – often violent – protests and denunciations of Mutharika and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). This led to Chakwera and his party, the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), contesting the legitimacy of the election with the Constitutional Court, resulting in the February ruling. Notably, the court also refused Mutharika the right to appeal the judgement, ensuring that the rerun election took place.
Importantly, the country’s opposition took advantage of the court-ordered rerun to adopt a better strategic approach, forming the Tonse Alliance comprising nine opposition parties, including leading figures such as former president Joyce Banda’s People’s Party and the United Transformation Party (UTP) led by Vice President Saulos Chilima. Chilima was a key member of this alliance as he was Mutharika’s vice president and placed third in the May 2019 presidential election with 20.2% of the vote. Chilima agreed to drop out of the presidential race and run as Chakwera’s running mate and vice-presidential contender. This coalition strategy, along with the improved quality of the election, resulted in Chakwera winning the rerun election with 58.57% of the vote. Although Chakwera had been widely expected to win the election, this was a surprisingly emphatic margin and essentially precludes any viable challenge to the election result.
Thus far Mutharika appears to have accepted the result, albeit with bad grace. The now former president has vacated the presidential residence and offices, but has criticised the election alleging widespread irregularities and intimidation and refused to attend Chakwera’s swearing-in ceremony on 28 June. Mutharika is unlikely to launch a legal challenge to the election and is even less likely to succeed should he try. The rerun election has generally been praised for meeting the higher standard demanded by the Constitutional Court.
It is worth noting that the rerun election and Chakwera’s victory is also the result of Malawi’s gradual, although uneven, strengthening of democratic institutions over the years. Mutharika was compelled to accept the Constitutional Court’s ruling and the Court was able to rule against a sitting president – a significant sign of a strengthening democracy. This was partly strengthened by the public refusal to accept the election result in 2019, leading to widespread protests indicating that Malawians, especially the post-1994 generation, are unwilling to accept suspect election results and demand a higher standard from state institutions. Similarly, the signs of the DPP’s slipping grip on electoral power had been there since the 2014 election when the party lost its outright majority in the legislature, forcing it into coalitions and partnerships with smaller parties. However, the most significant sign of the fundamental shift within Malawi was the fact that the Malawi Broadcasting Commission (MBC) felt empowered to report Chakwera’s impending victory in the days between the vote and the formal announcement by the electoral commission. This show of independence by the public broadcaster was a new and unexpected development and a strong indicator that Mutharika had lost his grip on state power.
While it is clear that Malawi has taken significant steps towards stronger democratic institutions, the country still struggles with widespread corruption and inefficiency within the security forces and the civil service. There are high expectations on Chakwera to reform these institutions and improve service delivery. In addition, concerns remain about the concentration of power in the presidency in recent years. However, Chilima has stated that one of his goals within the governing alliance is to devolve power away from the presidency back to the legislature. It is also promising that Chakwera does not have a parliamentary majority and, in fact, the now opposition DPP is the single largest party, forcing the President to carefully manage his coalition government and constraining executive power. This enforced coalition governing should also limit any regional or ethnicity-motivated biases within the new government and force Chakwera to try to address these divides, which have been exacerbated by the contentious election. However, regardless of the kind of president Chakwera turns out to be, the mere fact of his election is an important development. It marks the first true peaceful handover of power since 1994 when the United Democratic Front (UDF) won the first democratic elections, taking power from the MCP which had ruled the country for over 27 years. Since then the only change in political power has been within a party or when a sitting president formed a new party.
Optimistically, the rerun election and Chakwera’s victory suggest a maturing democratic institutions in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. However, the court ruling ordering the election rerun is potentially an even more important development. This, along with the similar order in Kenya, has set a regional precedent that elections need to meet a level of integrity in order to be accepted and will place pressure on other states as their own populations could begin to insist that elections meet these requirements. Such a shift in popular expectations could potentially have a major effect on politics in the region, both increasing the threat of civil unrest following elections and improving democratic institutions.