Why Malawi’s election surprised us, even if the outcome was unsurprising

June 11

Voters sit waiting at Namadzi Primary School, a polling center in Chiradzulu District, Malawi, on May 20, 2014. Because one of the voters’ lists was missing at Namadzi Primary School, roughly one quarter of the 2,881 voters registered at this polling station simply sat and waited for it to arrive. Some left. The other voters’ lists for Namadzi Primary’s polling center arrived three hours after the poll was scheduled to open. Photo: Kim Yi Dionne/The Monkey Cage

Continuing our series of Monkey Cage Election Reports, the following is a post-election report on the May 20-22 tripartite election in Malawi.

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More than 5 million Malawians went to the polls on May 20 (and some of them on May 21 and 22) to vote for president, members of parliament and local government councilors. The election was the closest in Malawi’s history, and the outcome charts a new path for the country.

The unsurprising outcome

After more than a week of difficulties encountered by the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) in tallying votes, a series of court injunctions (and related stay orders), and an attempt to nullify the elections by the former president because of alleged vote-rigging and other irregularities, Peter Mutharika, brother to Malawi’s late president, Bingu wa Mutharika, was declared winner of the presidential election.

As expected, the presidential race was closely fought. Mutharika received 36 percent of the popular vote. Coming in second was the Rev. Lazarus Chakwera, with 28 percent of the vote, followed by the incumbent, Joyce Banda, with 20 percent of the vote. Though other analysts picked President Banda to win, we were unconvinced she would benefit from an incumbency advantage and the handouts she gave to Malawians who attended her campaign rallies, especially given the “Cashgate” corruption scandal plaguing her.

No party has a majority in the new parliament.  The top four political parties — the PP, DPP, MCP and the UDF — won 138 of the 192 legislative seats. Mutharika’s DPP won 50 seats, followed by Chakwera’s MCP with 48. Banda’s PP won 26 and the UDF 14. Two smaller parties won one seat each. The largest block in the new parliament will be independent MPs, 52 of whom won seats. (One parliamentary race was postponed due to the death of one candidate; a by-election will be held on a date to be determined.)

Despite efforts by the Gender Coordination Network to boost the number of women legislators during the 2014 elections, only 30 women won parliamentary seats. Malawi’s gender ratio in parliament has declined as a result of the 2014 elections; 22 percent of the outgoing parliament was female, and the incoming parliament is only 16 percent female — far below the 50 percent target proposed in the SADC Gender Protocol, of which Malawi is a signatory.

The election outcomes are similar to outcomes in the 1994 and 2004 elections, in which no presidential candidate won a majority of votes and the leading candidates drew much political support from regional strongholds. Likewise, no party achieved a majority in parliament in either 1994 or 2004.

Different from previous presidential and parliamentary elections were the concurrently held votes for local government councilors in the 2014 elections. Unsurprisingly, the four main parties dominated the local government elections. The DPP won 165 seats, MCP 131, PP 65 and UDF 57. Other small parties won four local government seats, while another 35 seats went to candidates who ran as independents. In a further demonstration of the regionalist voting pattern, the DPP gained majority control of 10 councils, all but one in the party’s southern region stronghold. The MCP gained control of nine councils, all in the central region. The PP won control of four councils, all in the northern region. The UDF won control of three councils in its eastern region stronghold. No party won an outright majority in eight councils, including three in the northern region, one in the center and four in the southern region. As with the parliamentary elections, women fared poorly, as only 56 (or 12 percent) of Malawi’s 462 local government councilors are women.  

What was surprising?

Malawi is a generally peaceful country, and previous elections have been peaceful. Due partly to the close presidential race and mostly to delays in distribution of electoral materials, Malawi’s election was tense in places, and in some of these places, that tension escalated into violence, much of it against property, not people.

Journalists from Malawi’s major daily newspaper, The Nation, shoot footage of voters protesting in the streets of Blantyre because of delayed distribution of election materials to their polling centers. 

The source of frustration for Malawians stemmed largely from the electoral commission’s incredible delay in distributing voting materials, including voters’ registration lists and ballots to polling centers in the southern region and in the country’s capital, Lilongwe. Malawi has had four elections in the multiparty period preceding the 2014 election, and in no previous election was the exercise so poorly organized. The polls were meant to be open on May 20, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., or until the last voter in line at 6 p.m. cast his or her vote. However, distribution problems delayed the opening of most polling centers. Only 32 percent of polling centers were estimated to have opened on time (and only 25 percent in the southern region). Many centers stayed open late. Polling centers that experienced very long delays and/or violence on May 20 were opened on May 21, and some of those were also open on May 22.

A follow-on consequence of the delay in distribution of voting materials was the need for poll workers to work into the night. Doing so posed additional challenges. Rural polling, where there is limited access to electricity, had to rely on gas-powered lamps for nighttime voting and tallying. Late-opening centers were especially dependent on these lamps. In one center we visited on election day, the presiding officer pulled out the four gas lamps sent to his polling center; only one had gas. He said he had made the problem known to the Electoral Commission but had no direction from it on how he should proceed. How can one vote in the dark? Can votes be counted in the dark?


Four gas lamps, of a lot borrowed by Malawi’s government from the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, provided to a rural polling center in the southern region of Malawi that opened very late. Only one had gas. Photo: Kim Yi Dionne/The Monkey Cage

 

The lengthy delay in announcing the 2014 election results was yet another surprise. Previous election results have been announced within days. In 2009, for example, MEC announced the results three days after the end of polling. In 2014, however, the results were not announced until midnight on May 30, 2014 — a full eight days after the end of polling. The delays can be attributed to several factors, including the collapse of MEC’s electronic result management system which forced the commission to switch to a manual tally. Three days after the close of polling, MEC had only tallied results from 12 percent of centers.

The release of results was also affected by an unprecedented number of court petitions that had competing interests. On one hand, the MCP petitioned the courts to order MEC to do a physical recount before announcing any results, while a counterpetition by some concerned candidates obtained an injunction preventing MEC from doing any recount. President Banda also weighed in by issuing two separate directives, the first ordering MEC to undertake a recount and a second calling for the annulment of the elections, with fresh polls within 90 days.

Under Malawi electoral laws, MEC is required to announce results within eight days of the close of polling. However, 90 minutes before the eight days lapsed, it was still unclear whether the results would be announced in time. However, in a dramatic court decision issued at 10:30 p.m. on May 30, the High Court ruled that the eight-day requirement could not be varied, freeing MEC to announce results around midnight on May 30.  To crown it all, the MEC chairman, Justice Maxon Mbendera, threw the last surprise by bursting into tears while he announced the presidential results.

 

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Other Monkey Cage Election Reports can be found here. See earlier Monkey Cage posts on Malawi’s 2014 election here, here, and here.

Kim Yi Dionne (@dadakim) is Five College Assistant Professor of Government at Smith College. She studies identity, public opinion, political behavior and policy aimed at improving the human condition, with a focus on African countries.

Boniface Dulani (@BoniDulani) is Lecturer of Political Science at Chancellor College, University of Malawi’s flagship arts and sciences institution. He studies presidential politics, public opinion and political behavior.

Kim Yi Dionne is Five College Assistant Professor of Government at Smith College. She studies identity, public opinion, political behavior, and policy aimed at improving the human condition, with a focus on African countries.
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