By Victor Ndagha Kaonga
On Tuesday 23rd June 2020, Malawi held fresh presidential elections following a Constitutional Court order of 3rd February 2020 to do so within 150 days. It had annulled the May 21, 2019, presidential election results. Clergyman Dr Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party ousted former law Professor Peter Mutharika of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). As Malawi progresses with the new leadership, I want to reflect on the journey and the term “Birth of the Third Republic”.
The Midnight Six
When Malawi’s second president in multiparty democracy Dr Bingu wa Mutharika died on April 5th 2012, a plan by what is known by the Midnight Six would have ushered Malawi on a new path of politics. This was a group of six cabinet ministers who met at night and strategized on stopping the ascendency to power of Vice President Mrs Joyce Banda. Bingu died in his third year of service as president and constitutionally, his vice president Mrs Banda should have taken over within those two uncertain days following his death. It is reported that the late president’s brother Professor Peter Mutharika was one of the Midnight Six, and instead of mourning his brother, he was busy resisting the change of power to Joyce Banda. Incidentally, Banda had fallen out of favour with Bingu late 2013 when she formed her own political party (Peoples Party-PP) thus effectively putting herself in opposition to her boss and the Democratic Progress Party (DPP) that sponsored her into office in 2009. That constitutional crisis was however resolved quickly and diplomatically when Joyce Banda was sworn in as the third president of the Republic of Malawi to finish Bingu wa Mutharika’s term. If he died before finishing the first half of his term, fresh elections would have been called for.
It is important to note that once Banda became president in April 2012, she had the Midnight Six arrested. The next presidential elections were due for May 2014, thus she had two years within which to consolidate her leadership, party and politics. But she and her Peoples Party appeared not to have been ready to ascend to power and beat the opposition the next two years. During those two years, DPP felt robbed of power.
The Rebirth of the Malawi Congress Party
In April 2013, Rev. Dr Lazarus Chakwera announced that he was joining the race for the party presidency of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) which had been in opposition since 1994 when it was ousted of power after being in government for 30 years (1964-1994 under the one-party rule of Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda).
Chakwera was not only a complete newcomer but also a surprise one switching from leading the Malawi Assemblies of God, one of the long-established and growing Pentecostal churches in Malawi. He had been at the helm of its leadership for twenty years and he felt or sensed God’s call to serve him in politics. At the MCP convention, he faced stiff competition from veteran members but he emerged the winner. Having lost to the DPP led by Peter Mutharika, MCP and his candidacy came second at the elections in May 2014. He effectively became Leader of Opposition in Parliament and became a fiery critic of the Mutharika-led government. Chakwera argued that the election was stolen from him. While Joyce Banda also lost (largely because of cashgate under her watch) and came third, her disappearance to the US for the next three demonstrated her bitterness against Mutharika and DPP.
Government as a Corruption Enterprise
Throughout the presidency of Peter Mutharika (2014-2019), government and the ruling party DPP were increasingly seen as an enterprise for enriching members of the party through deals and nepotistic tendencies. Both MCP and PP perpetually hit hard on government highlighting to the electorate that Malawi needed transformational leadership that is above politics of patronage and corruption. Millions of US Dollars were lost under the watch of Mutharika and Malawians especially the disadvantaged Northerners and those from Central Malawi were increasingly becoming fed up with this trend.
Mutharika feud with his Vice President
As it was with his brother Bingu, Peter fell out with his Vice President Dr Saulos Chilima in 2017 though the matter became public in 2018 when Chilima formed the United Transformation Movement (UTM). Senior DPP officials castigated Chilima claiming he was power-hungry and impatient. Incidentally, it was Peter Mutharika’s sister-in-law, the former First Lady Callista Mutharika who championed the cause for Chilima. In 2018, she openly requested Peter Mutharika to leave the party leadership to his vice Chilima so that Mutharika could rest since he was already 79 at the time. Unfortunately, this was not welcome news to the Lomwe tribal grouping where Mutharika belongs sensing loss of power to the central region where Chilima comes from.
Heated May 2019 Presidential Elections
With another newcomer in the name of Saulos Chilima on the presidential race for May 2019 elections, the campaign promised to be one Malawi had never experienced. Chilima mounted a huge campaign against DPP yet he remained country’s Vice President in a DPP-led government. Younger, more market-oriented and seeming to appeals to Malawi’s major demographics, he soon became a popular presidential candidate. Being a new party though, UTM did not have any members of
parliament neither structures on the ground. He kept saying that DPP won’t steal the elections of May 2019.
The evidence of irregularities against the declared results of Mutharika as presidency on 28th May 2019 was so overwhelming that UTM and MCP resorted to the High Court for nullification of the presidential results. Chakwera narrowly came second to Mutharika while Chilima came third. Joyce Banda had withdrawn her candidature.
For Chakwera, this election was his last chance to contest on MCP ticket as according to their constitution, he was not to be allowed to contest for the third time. He did not accept the presidential results of May 21, 2019 election arguing that Mutharika stole the vote. He, however, allowed Mutharika to be sworn in as president because he said that in his understanding of the constitution of the Republic of Malawi, the presidency could not be vacant.
The 3rd February 2020 Ruling
The submissions (by MCP and UTM) at the High Court in June 2019, were combined into one and the Chief Justice Andrew Nyirenda constituted a Constitutional Court comprising five High Court Judges, Justices Dingiswayo Madise, Ivy Kamanga, Mike Tembo, Healy Potani, and Dr Redson Kapindu who sat for the next three months hearing the case. After that period, they took 45 days within which they came up with their ruling on 3rd February 2020 which annulled the presidential elections of May 21, 2019. The Constitutional Court ordered the Malawi Electoral Commission to hold Fresh Presidential Elections within 150 days from the day of the ruling. Following the appeal of this ruling from Peter Mutharika and the Electoral Commission, the Supreme Court of Appeal on 8th May 2020 upheld the ruling by the Constitutional Court. The Supreme Court of Appeal with a panel of seven judges added further directions to the order for fresh presidential elections.
Malawi in Flames of Fire
It is important to point out that since the May 21, 2019 elections, Malawi became heavily polarized. The narrative by MCP and UTM that DPP stole the vote for the president became even stronger. These parties and the civil society embarked on a nation-wide campaign, protests and demonstrations to force the chairperson of the electoral commission Justice Dr Jane Ansah SC to resign for what they said she had presided over an election with lots of irregularities. She arrogantly refused to resign and this position was supported by president Mutharika and the ruling DPP.
Malawi had never experienced such a wave of protests in anger against a ruling party in the democratic dispensation. Most if not all the protests were organized by the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) whose Chairperson Timothy Mtambo in April 2020 formed the Citizen for Transformation (CFT). He said that his goal was to support the opposition to oust the DPP-led government. The Malawi Defense Force (MDF) protected the protesters who at times overpowered the Malawi Police Service. Chakwera and Chilima became buddies in these protests and the case against DPP.
The pairing of Enemies and Friends
As Malawians waited for the Fresh Presidential Election, the main talk was on who would be the torchbearers. It was the view of many Malawians that alliances were to deliver the best results following the required 50 per cent-plus-one rule on declaring the results. The main contenders were Mutharika for DPP, Chakwera for MCP and Chilima for UTM. It was a huge relief to many Malawians when by April 15, 2020, news broke that MCP and UTM would form an alliance and feature one candidate.
Peter Mutharika picked Atupele Muluzi of the United Democratic Front which had ruled Malawi between 1994 and 2005. This pair, however, attracted a lot of criticism as it was seen to perpetuate family political dynasties of Muluzi and Mutharika. Before becoming president in 2014, Mutharika had served in various Cabinet portfolios under his brother Bingu. He had lived and worked as a law professor in the US for almost three decades before joining his Bingu in Malawi mid-2000.
The candidacy of Rev. Dr Lazarus Chakwera was received with excitement by both UTM and MCP. The 65-year old Chakwera was seen as an ideal candidate having united the MCP from 2013, having been Leader of Opposition in parliament, and most importantly having been second in the two previous disputed elections. Having come from a church background, his life of integrity and leadership was said to be time for testing in politics. He won not only the hearts of MCP but also the former president Joyce Banda and leaders of seven other political parties. His biggest endorsement came from Saulos Chilima of UTM who was retained to the Vice Presidency following the Constitutional Court ruling on 3rd February 2020. Chakwera committed to working with Chilima to transform Malawi touting the Tonse Alliance as the vehicle for change.
Fresh Presidential Elections
It became very clear after the Constitutional Court ruling that President Mutharika and his DPP were to resist the fresh polls. Mutharika did not fire the Electoral Commission Chair and her commissioners whom the Courts and Public Appointments Committee found incompetent. But following pressure and pending expiry of their contracts at the commission, a new commission was appointed just about two weeks to the polling day 23rd June 2020. Mutharika and his DPP had also tried to block the polling date but Malawi Parliament resolved on the polling date. More so, the planned polls were to take place amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and Malawi had already put in place a number of measures in an attempt to prevent its spread.
The new chairperson Justice Dr Chifundo Kachale injected credibility and confidence into the commission and the stakeholders. He said that he and the commissioners had to do everything possible to deliver credible, just and fair fresh presidential elections as per the mandate of the laws and the orders of the Courts. Malawians have praised the Courts for safeguarding the democracy, the new Electoral Commission for the professionalism in carrying out this election, the various election stakeholders for support and main political party players for their humility and conducting themselves well.
The Firsts of Many
It is therefore seen that the fresh presidential election in Malawi is an expression of many firsts:
It was first time that the presidential results were nullified and a fresh poll ordered unanimously by the Constitutional Court. It has demonstrated that a former ruling and indeed an opposition party (Malawi Congress Party) can unseat the ruling party. It is also the first time that Malawi has a president who was ordained as a church minister and claimed he heard from God calling him into public service. It is the first time that the sitting Vice President has given way to another candidate who is not even in government to be his president for the sake of serving Malawians. It is the first time that the presidential elections have been held with Malawi-based international observers. The ability of the Electoral Commission and especially its Chairperson Chifundo Kachale has given confidence to the Malawi electorate for future elections though in retrospect, suspicions that some earlier elections may indeed have been stolen.
Malawi, therefore, sees the birth of a third republic. The first being that of the single-party system of government under Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda from 1964 to 1994. The second being that of two families in multiparty politics of Muluzi and Mutharika both of whom vowed never to give power to MCP let alone to the Central region. The fact that the former ruling party-MCP which took Malawi into independence is back to power is seen to be the birth of a third republic. It operated alone during the 30-year rule but now it has to work within the Tonse Alliance and in a country with more political parties.