The triumph of people power in Malawi

The triumph of people power in Malawi
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“History takes a long time, and it’s not kind to those who push it.”

As a student of foreign affairs and African studies, I heard such sentiment expressed often by those who fought against the Apartheid regime, South Africa’s institutionalized system of racial segregation. That system ultimately collapsed, and gave way to one of the greatest political triumphs of the 20th century, April 26, 1994, when former political prisoner Nelson Mandela was elected president of a multi-racial, post-Apartheid South Africa.   

Like a haunting melody, words of undeniable truth can remain in the recesses of your mind for years, until something awakens them.  So it was for me last week, when Malawi’s unified opposition claimed the presidency in an historic presidential re-run.   

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“Increasingly power has shifted to the people,” former president Joyce Banda told Dan Keeler of the Wall Street Journal. “Malawians are demanding accountability, transparency and respect for human rights and rule of law. Any leader who thinks they can be autocratic and abuse their people with impunity is doing so at their own peril.”

Malawi is a Southern African nation of 18 million with a majority of its population surviving on subsistence farming, and whose presidency had been a family affair for the past decade, made possible by weak institutions, official corruption, and the heavy-handed use of security forces — a  formula that continues to bolster African authoritarian leaders in places like Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Uganda, Zambia and elsewhere.  

Unlike the white-on-black degradation of Apartheid that mobilized a movement of global outrage, this type of governing abuse has not been consistently shouted out, and sometimes it’s even been justified as offering up peace as an acceptable trade for electoral justice.

But not this time, not this place.

Thirteen months ago, the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) declared the incumbent president Peter Mutharika the winner of the presidential vote with 38.6 percent support, slightly ahead of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), whose leader, Lazarus Chakwera, a preacher-turned-opposition leader, secured a reported 35.4 percent. Saulos Chilima, Muratharika’s former Vice President, who broke away and formed the United Transformation Movement (UTM), finished third with 20 percent.

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At the time, it was feared that a fractured opposition would dilute the vote, permitting the incumbent to manipulate the final tally at the margins, and that’s exactly what happened.

The irregularities were extensive and crude, including the use of Tipp-Ex (a.k.a. White-Out) on results sheets. The opposition filed a complaint citing 147 cases of irregularities, and initially gained 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 Mutharika’s victory.

The story could have ended there. The international observers had given the election a passing grade, and gone home. But street protests, which began with a call by civil society for the resignation of the MEC chairperson, morphed into an expression of greater dissatisfaction with the government.

Malawi was soon swept up in one of the most encouraging political revolutions to hit Africa in last two decades — the rise of the activist generation. Indeed, an Afrobarometer survey at the time found that there was strong opposition to any attempt to subvert the democratic process, with 68 percent of its citizens believing that the opposition parties were justified in filing their case.

Nine month later, in February, 2020, bolstered by its people, Malawi’s supreme court mandated fresh elections. The court recalled the current electoral commission and called for parliament to amend the Parliamentary and Presidential Elections Act to require winners to achieve an absolute majority of 50 percent plus-one votes. This was the first time a court-overturned vote in Africa had resulted in the defeat of an incumbent leader.

The judiciary was not the only institution in Malawi that fought for their constitutional independence. So too did the country’s military, which consistently sought to protect those protesting against the orders of President Mutharika. In an act of desperation, the president tried to enforce a nation-wide lock down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which many believed would have threatened a largely rural population with starvation. His order was overruled.

On Tuesday 23 June, Malawi went back to the polls for the second time in 13 months, this time, with Chakwera’s MCP and Chilima’s UTM, forming the Tonse Alliance, bringing together regional alliances with the urban youth vote. They won decisively with 58.6 percent of the votes cast.  

On Sunday, 29 June, the 65-year-old Chakwera, whose party had been in opposition for the past 30 years, was sworn in as President, and Chilima as Vice President.

I applaud the new president and vice president for their diligence in deploying political party poll watchers, bringing their cases of election fraud before the court, unifying an historically fractured opposition, and running a campaign calling for national unity.

But for me, the real heroes of this historic triumph are the people of Malawi, whose protests were so sustained and vigorous that once-captive institutions found their independence, narrow political agendas were set aside, and — in the absence of foreign election observers — regular citizens marched alongside during transport of ballot boxes to protect the integrity of the vote.  

And in the spirit of the essential truth that, “history is not kind to those who push it,” a shout-out to former President Banda, who survived an assassination attempt, political isolation, electoral injustice, defamation, and a period of exile, only to return to the country in April 2018, re-build her party, mobilize rural women, and support a unified opposition ticket.

On Sunday, Banda sat on stage as the president-elect was sworn into office in a demonstration of a peaceful, democratic transfer of power. Upon taking his  oath of office, President Chakwera said that he had heard the voices of his people and promised, “with your help, we will restore a new generation's faith in the possibility of having a government that serves, not a government that rules; a government that inspires, not a government that infuriates; a government that listens, not a government that shouts; a government that fights for you, not against you.”

Amen to that.

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