by Jack McBRAMS
LILONGWE, Malawi (AFP) — Malawi goes to the polls on Tuesday in a historic presidential re-run after a court overturned last year’s elections and ordered a fresh vote.
Citing “grave” and “widespread” rigging, the country’s constitutional court ruled in February that President Peter Mutharika had not been duly elected, and mandated a new poll within 150 days.
The landmark verdict, which reverberated across African politics, made Malawi the second country south of the Sahara to have presidential poll results set aside, after Kenya in 2017.
Although there are three candidates, Tuesday’s election is practically a two-horse race between the president and his main rival Lazarus Chakwera.
An upbeat Mutharika held his final campaign meeting on Saturday, rallying supporters to vote and secure another victory.
“We won the election in 2019 but the (opposition) went to court and grabbed the government from us,” Mutharika told scores of supporters in Rumphi, northern Malawi.
“So let us go and vote so that those who stole the government from us should be ashamed”.
Mutharika’s narrow victory in May 2019 spawned tensions and sparked widespread, months-long protests that saw the military intervene as confrontations between police and protesters turned violent.
It was the first time Malawi, which gained independence from colonial ruler Britain in 1964 — and was then ruled as a one-party state for three decades by Kamuzu Banda — had experienced such protests.
– Integrity –
Mutharika won the disputed 2019 election by a mere 38.5 percent of the total ballots cast, and just 159,000 more than Chakwera.
His attempts to challenge the top court’s ruling fell flat last month when the Supreme Court quashed his appeal.
The leader soon embarked on an onslaught on the judiciary, accusing the courts of staging a coup against him.
Chakwera, who led the watershed election petition, said the cancellation of last year’s vote had vindicated his long-held suspicions about the ballot.
But this time around, “we have more confidence that this election will be treated with the integrity it deserves,” Chakwera told AFP.
He enjoys the support of an electoral coalition of nine political parties, and is confident of victory.
Mutharika, a 79-year-old former Washington University law professor, has faced widespread criticism — with the opposition accusing his administration of massive corruption, nepotism and cronyism.
Callista Mutharika, who was married to the president’s late brother, ex-president Bingu wa Mutharika, says time is up for her brother-in-law.
“People have suffered for too long and they want change. We are winning this election,” said Callista, now an opposition politician.
– ‘Law-abiding leader’ –
Local musician Tay Grin, who has campaigned for Mutharika across the country, is confident voters want the president to stay in power.
“He is a law-abiding leader, he is the rock we need to stand on during these chaotic times,” he said.
For Joseph Nkhunga, a local tailor in Lilongwe’s flea market and an opposition supporter, the election “is an opportunity for this country to start afresh because we have wasted five years under Peter Mutharika”.
“All we need are equal opportunities for everyone without looking at where one is coming from or who they are related to,” he told AFP as a huge opposition party flag fluttered near his sewing machine.
Malawian political scientist at the University of Witwatersrand, Michael Jana, said the elections were necessary, but not guaranteed to run smoothly.
“They will not be perfect given the haphazard nature of their preparation ranging from no proper guidelines, rushed reconstitution of the Malawi Electoral Commission, to delays in funding”, he said.
“I can only hope that the results of the elections will be clear enough as not to open another Pandora’s box of contestations,” he added.
University of Malawi political scientist Henry Chingaipe said Mutharika is unlikely to be re-elected.
“I think that even Mutharika himself knows this and that is why he has presided over multiple schemes to prevent the holding of the election,” he said.
The election is taking place during the coronavirus crisis, with 620 confirmed cases and eight deaths confirmed in the country.
Despite the pandemic, tens of thousands of people — mainly with no face masks and without observing social distancing — have attended public rallies across Malawi.
© Agence France-Presse