In less than six months’ time, eligible voters in Malawi will line up at various polling stations across the country to cast their votes in order to determine who shall be given the mandate to assume public offices in the Presidency, the Legislature and the Local Government Authority system. The date to cross on our 2019 calendars in this respect is 21 May, 2019; tsiku lodzasankha Pulezidenti, a-Phungu ndi ma-Khansala.
The official campaign period shall be declared in March 2019. However, true to form, we are well and truly in campaign mode right now. (The cheeky ones amongst you are probably saying we went into campaign mode on 21 May, 2014—a day after the 2014 tripartite elections.) APM and his team are hitting the trail holding ‘development rallies’; cutting ribbons on new Gaff’ment projects; and laying new stones to replace old stones—as promised pulojeketi continue to lay in abeyance! On the other side, the frontrunners seem to be SKC, Rev Laz and Amayi. Are there others? Who knows.
If we may locate Malawi in the wider African prism, scholarship has long arrived at a consensus that multiparty politics and elections is not the same as electoral democracy. There is acknowledgement that the African polity has witnessed an uneven electoral playing field, unashamed manipulation, violence and intimidation. Indeed, in Africa, the formal electoral process ushers in a government that (often) has no respect for the rule of law. The African electoral system—looked at this way—is a process of legitimation. In the academy, there is an army of scholars dealing with this phenomenon which they call ‘Electoral authoritarianism’ (Folks like Andreas Schedler & them out there; and Nandini Patel, Comrade Che & them locally).
I highlight here the lessons we have not learnt as a country when it comes to the electoral process. Second, I also highlight what Dick Snyder has called ‘extra-electoral factors’ as we continue on this journey to 21 May 2019.
First, the process: We continue to treat an election in this country as an event and not a cycle. When we voted on 20 May, 2014, for example, did we put the systems in place in readiness of the next voting day, namely, 21 May, 2019? Each general elections post-1994 has witnessed knee-jerkism by those we have entrusted in managing the elections. It is as if we suddenly wake up from a deep slumber only to be told that that there is an election tomorrow. Voter registration, polling station management, ballots collation; all these leave a lot to be desired. Right now, we have ‘kits’ being found in mpanyila and our Commissioners are only—now—claiming the found ‘kits’ when they did not declare the ‘kits’ lost in the first place.
There are also a number of legal m’kute we have not resolved in our electoral system. Two examples come to mind. The first example I may post here relates to the meaning of ‘majority’ in the context of the presidential poll. The issue came up in the Gwanda Chakuamba (Mwabera Voti) Case of 1999. The courts followed simple majority. The lawyers will tell us that nkhani yatha. I remain of the view that it is a matter that should be resolved—definitively—outside the courts.
The second example relates to the obligation placed on the Electoral Commission to announce the election results within eight days after voting has closed. A case came up after the tripartite elections of 2014. Depending on which ‘colour’ you are, Justice Kenyatta Nyirenda is either a hero or a villain. The wider point here is this: In the intervening period between 2014 and 2019, no one in the podium–politics class has forcefully argued for the amendment of the relevant section in the electoral law relating to announcement of election results. Kwakhala kuli zii.
Now on Snyder’s extra–electoral factors: He urges us to ask four questions. First, who rules?— party elites, a personal leader, the military, or the clergy. Second, how do rulers rule?— by means of patron-client networks, ethnic ties, or a mass-based party. Third, why do rulers rule?—out of greed, ethnic hatred, or a commitment to a religion or ideology. And fourth, how much do rulers rule?—that is, whether anybody rules and, if so, to what degree. The military, clergy, religion or ideology have not been – to a large extent—critical factors in electoral outcomes in Malawi so far. An unfathomable trilogy of a Messiah, Patron–Client networks, and Ethnicity has been the major determinant of elections in this country. As we approach 21 May, 2019, the Malawian electorate needs to be on the lookout for tired lies, kolaposono tendencies, and ethnically–based hate masquerading as celebrations of ‘culture’.
A bout of perceived diarrhoea going on for some six months and counting may not be diarrhoea after all. As Gwaladi Joe ‘raps’: ‘Thumbocid musiyeni/Kangoyezesani’. 21 May, 2019 should be the date you seek a new diagnosis as you—the voter —sees fit. n
* Chikosa Silungwe is a lawyer & consultant at The Mizumali Foundation. He holds a PhD in Law from The University of Warwick in Coventry, England.