On Monday, February 3, the African country of Malawi nullified its presidential election from May 2019. This decision was due to “irregularities,” like discernibly altered return sheets, that could have altered the results of the election. The country now has 150 days to institute a rerun. Among other things, this decision set a major precedent about obtaining and maintain democracy in the country. One can consider whether the decision to redo their presidential election will secure the presence of a true democracy in Malawi, and possibly the rest of Africa, or whether the country will slip back into corruption and an uneven playing field for their elections.
Malawi is a landlocked country located in Southeast Africa. They have had trouble maintaining democracy in the past. From 1966-1994, Malawi had a one-party system with very little democratic traits. A new constitution was introduced and then amended in 1994, allowing for one president to serve no more than two five-year terms, and one or two vice presidents, all voted on by all citizens 18 years or older. This president can appoint a cabinet, and the people also elect a National Assembly, a unicameral legislature (Malawi 2019). Despite the foundations of democracy, the citizens of Malawi are unsatisfied with their democracy, according to Afrobarometer (Wahman 2020).
It is important to note that the “winner” of Malawi’s 2019 election was the incumbent, President Peter Mutharika. He took 38.6% of the vote, while his competitors, Lazarus Chakwera and Saulos Chilima, received 35.4% and 20.5%, respectively. Chakwera and Chilima challenged the results almost immediately after they were announced on account of the result sheets being doused in a correction fluid called Tipp-Ex. They argued that this was evidence of Mutharika and his supporters tampering with the election results, and the Constitutional Court agreed on account of the widespread nature of the tampered papers and the seriousness of the accusations. The court ruled unanimously to annul the results and organize a rerun (Green 2020). This decision also means that section 80(2) of the Malawian constitution is to be enacted, meaning that no candidate can be named president without a 50+1 majority of votes (Wahman 2020). President Mutharika wants to appeal the decision, despite experts stating that a unanimous decision is nearly impossible to overturn. This decision was also exceedingly rare due to the case being against the incumbent. In fact, a wealthy banker was arrested for purportedly attempting to bribe the court when they were considering nullification.
President Mutharika’s win in 2014 was accompanied by protests and accusations of electoral errors, but only the 2019 election was enough to call for an annulment. This sets a major precedent because this is the first time an election has ever been nullified in Malawi despite decades of corruption, the second time an African election has been nullified, the first being in Kenya, and the fourth ever in the modern world. Freedom House reports Malawi’s freedom score as 64/100, but states that Malawi is “lacks resources and is often unprepared to carry out elections” (Freedom in the World 2018). The nullification of the 2019 election and the enforcement of the 50+1 majority rule could be the action that takes Malawi’s democracy from a minimalist democracy, by Robert Dahl’s standards, to a procedural minimum democracy, where alternatives are real choices and elections are not skewed by existing leaders.
Malawi had an authoritarian government until 1994, and if the other branches of government upheld Mutharika’s win under unfair conditions, it is possible that it could have slipped back into this regime. If elections are unfair, then the selectorate is really not the citizens, but the leader and his allies. If the election results were falsified to help the incumbent, this would not be a democracy, but instead an electoral authoritarian government. However, the High Court’s nullification of the election could have a huge impact, not only on future Malawian elections, but African and worldwide elections.
The nullification of the Malawian election poses a question: could this improve the overall freedom score and level of democracy of Africa, and set a precedent of nullifying possibly unfair elections? Freedom House reports that Sub-Saharan Africa is only 12% free. Malawi’s neighboring countries of Zambia and Mozambique have freedom scores of 55/100 and 51/100, respectively. Both countries suffer from similar issues of marred elections, leading to possible electoral authoritarian regimes. But Malawi’s choice to nullify their unfair election and ensure the fairness of future ones with the implementation of the 50+1 rule could signify a change in uneven playing grounds in Sub-Saharan Africa. If President Mutharika does not win the run-off election, this effect could be especially monumental. After all, nearly 2/3 of the Malawian population did not vote for him in the first election. Additionally, accusations of falsifying election results will likely lower his approval rating from citizens. However, even if Mutharika does win again, the court’s check of power could discourage him from acting unconstitutionally during his second term. It could also discourage future leaders from doing so. The question is whether this precedent will carry over to other African countries, especially neighbors of Malawi who suffer from similar electoral issues, or whether the precedent will stay within the Malawian borders.