From Mitt to Malawi — profiles in political courage

From Mitt to Malawi — profiles in political courage
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Last week, many in the U.S. media — news anchors, talking heads and commentators — gushed with praise over Utah Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneySanders says he can't support bipartisan COVID-19 relief proposal in its current form Romney blasts Trump lack of leadership during pandemic: 'It's a great human tragedy' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Congress inches closer to virus relief deal MORE, the sole Republican to vote to convict President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpAppeals court OKs White House diverting military funding to border wall construction Pentagon: Tentative meeting between spy agencies, Biden transition set for early next week Conservative policy director calls Section 230 repeal an 'existential threat' for tech MORE in his impeachment trial. The accolades ranged from “a profile in courage” to “Romney speaks for posterity.”

I grant Romney full credit for the mettle displayed in defying his president and his party. Romney has now become the target of wrath of an emboldened Trump and his core supporters. It’s an unenviable position that no other Republican senator took on for fear of voter backlash in an election year. 

But let’s gets some perspective — and remind ourselves that democracy, with all its imperfections, is defended every-day around the globe through individual and collective acts of courage and defiance, and that the reckoning for those who defy power are much more consequential than some bad press or a Twitter tirade.


Indeed, if I were to vote on the global profile in courage award for last week, Romney would come in a distant second to the five-judge panel of Malawi’s Constitutional Court which nullified a fraudulent presidential election for which international election observers had issued a passing grade.  

The High Court judges deliberated for seven months, during the worst political crisis that country has seen since its return to democracy in 1994. They could have succumbed to intimidation and self-censorship. They could have quietly accepted bribes to render a verdict in favor of president Peter Mutharika.

But the judges defiantly stood firm on the truth, on rule-of-law, and in solidarity with the protesters who were met by a brutal police crackdown, including arrests, beatings, rapes and armed assaults and who yet did not surrender the street.

Mutharika, the 79-year-old incumbent president of this Southern African nation of 18 million, along with his compliant Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC), didn’t even try to cover their election-rigging tracks — not bothering to try to hide their crude and wide-spread use of Tipp-Ex (a.k.a. White-Out) to change the tallies on thousands of results sheets. 

The opposition filed 147 cases of irregularities, initially gaining a court injunction to halt the vote count and a declaration of a winner, but within days, the court lifted the injunction, permitting the MEC chairwomen to announce the presidential victory

On May 27, 2019, the MEC declared Mutharika the winner of the presidential vote with 38.6 percent support, slightly ahead of the main opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP), whose leader Lazarus Chakwera secured a reported 35.4 percent, and Saulos Chilima’s United Transformation Movement (UTM), who finished third with a reported 20 percent. Mutharika and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), quickly moved to hold his inauguration.


And Mutharika and the ruling party nearly got away with it.  

But street protests, which began with a call by government opponents for the resignation of the MEC chairperson, morphed into an expression of greater dissatisfaction with the government. Like in Sudan, the people of Malawi had reached their tipping point.

What the embattled Malawi president didn’t understand was that this was no longer the same country that his elder brother, Bingu-wa Mutharika, had ruled for eight years until his death. It was no longer the country that he inherited from a corrupt political elite, and it was no longer the country where you could rig an election without consequence.

Malawi was now swept up in the most important political revolution to hit Africa in last two decades — the rise of the activist generation, the leaders of which had learned that protecting the ballot was as important as the conduct of their campaigns in part because an independent judiciary was beginning to put national interests ahead of narrow political agendas.

Last Monday, Feb. 3, in a 500-page ruling that took some 10 hours to read, Malawi’s Chief Judge Healey Potani detailed a litany of electoral irregularities, declared that President Murtharika was not duly elected and called for fresh elections in the next 150 days.

But it didn’t stop there.

The court ordered the recalling of the current electoral commission and further ruled that the simple plurality standard, used in every presidential race since 1994, was against the “majority” principle in Malawi’s constitution. The court called for parliament to amend the Parliamentary and Presidential Elections Act to require winners achieve an absolute majority of 50 percent plus-one votes.

Former president of Malawi, Joyce Banda, who campaigned vigorously for the court to overturn the election, told me, “nobody gave us a chance!” But even so, “the men, women and youth of Malawi triumphed.”

Unfortunately, it’s not over.

President Murtharika has announced plans to challenge the constitutional court, describing the ruling as "a serious miscarriage of justice and an attack on the foundations of the country's democracy."

Andrew Harding of the BBC wrote that “much now hangs on whether any appeal goes ahead, how quickly it is dealt with, and — of course — whether the judges' ruling is overturned. Legal challenges aside, Malawi now has under five months to organize and fund new elections, change its electoral law, overhaul its electoral commission, and maintain public order at a time of heightened political tensions. That is a tall order for any country.”

Notwithstanding Harding’s cautions, my bet remains with the Malawi people.

And my hopes are that Mutharika calls it a day, making way for a new generation, that the opposition political parties coalesce, and that the international community doesn’t fail the Malawi people again.

Perhaps Sen. Mitt Romney’s supporters and detractors — those who believe our institutions have failed because of political subornation or who blame America’s woes on the creep of the “deep state” — can pause and look half-way around the world to reflect upon the fact that  America’s greatest gift to the world, it’s constitutional democracy, continues to inspire.

NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to correct the reference to Sudan.

K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, award-winning author of "Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa's First Woman President" (Kiwai Media, June 2016). You can follow her @rivalevinson