On May 20, 2014, Malawi held its fifth consecutive multiparty elections. These elections were unique for three main reasons. First, Malawi was holding tripartite elections for the first time since its transition to democracy in May 1994. Second, president Joyce Banda—the second female to be elected president on the African continent—was facing her first electoral test since ascending to power following the death of her predecessor, president Bingu wa Mutharika, in April 2012. Third, the 2014 elections were widely seen as the most competitive since 1994, as it was very difficult to isolate a clear favorite.

This year Peter Mutharika of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was declared the winner of the presidential elections, defeating incumbent Banda by a noticeable margin. Mutharika received 36.4 percent of the vote, followed by Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) with 27.8 percent. Meanwhile, Joyce Banda of the People’s Party (PP) came in third with 22.1 percent, and Atupele Muluzi of the United Democratic Front (UDF) came in fourth with 13.7 percent.1”European Union Election Observation Mission Final Report Malawi 2014: Tripartite Elections, Presidential, Parliamentary and Local Council,” European Union Election Observation Mission, http://www.eueom.eu/files/pressreleases/english/EUEOMMALAWI2014_FinalReport.pdf, accessed July 01, 2014.

These results have been widely embraced by democracy enthusiasts and seen as a significant milestone in Malawi’s democratization project. The milestone has been characterized by a change of government through the verdict of the ballot, which is widely seen as one of the country’s strongest indicators of democratic maturity.2Michael Coppedge et al., “Conceptualizing and Measuring Democracy: A New Approach,” Perspectives on Politics 9 (2011): 247-267, http://people.bu.edu/jgerring/documents/MeasuringDemocracy.pdf, accessed June 29, 2014. By contrast, the previous changes in government were very much accidental: late president Mutharika formed DPP while already in government on the UDF’s ticket; and then-vice-president Joyce Banda of the PP ascended to the presidency following the death of Mutharika in office in April 2012.

However, a critical review of the overall conduct and handling of the polls in May raises a crucial question as to whether or not these elections should be celebrated as the significant achievement they have been made out to be. While the contestations witnessed during the recent polling period did not plunge the country into violence, it was the manner in which the elections results were handled that demonstrates the predominantly negative nature of Malawi’s democratization project. The election results have been steeped in claims of cheating, serious logistical problems, and deep political intrigue, to the extent that some observers characterized the elections as essentially choiceless,3“Ten Mistakes that cost Mrs. JB the presidency,” The Daily Times, June 10, 2014. with Mutharika’s victory being widely questioned in terms of its integrity and credibility.4“Why Malawi took so long to declare an election winner,” The Guardian, May 30, 2014.

Stakeholders have generally not expressed any reservations with the preparatory phases of the 2014 elections. While there were problems with the voters’ roll, they have agreed that the challenges were not serious enough to undermine the overall integrity of the polls. The Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) is commended for having presided over the preparatory phases in a transparent, accountable, and participatory manner through the National Consultative Forum (NECOF).5“MESN Preliminary Statement on the Conduct of the 2014 Tripartite Elections,” Malawi Voice, May 23, 2014.

Questions of the elections’ democratic integrity are, however, grounded in the logistical challenges experienced on polling day and the subsequent management of the results. Such challenges included shortage of electoral materials, late printing of ballots, incorrect ballot papers being miscarried to voting centers, tardy distribution of voting materials, and delayed opening of polling centers. Furthermore, voting had to be carried out over three consecutive days, since eligible voters had failed to cast their ballots within the 6 a.m.–6 p.m. window.6“Donors exposed: their inefficiencies contributed to electoral mess,” Nation on Sunday, June 8, 2014.

The management of the results was also quite chaotic. For example, result sheets at some polling stations did not bear the names or signatures of the presiding officers, while political party monitors at other stations did not even officially sign result sheets. There were also those result documents that bore figures which had been altered or whitened-out, and in some cases the results were ineligible altogether. Moreover, there were discrepancies regarding polling station’s totals for candidates, as well as the total number of votes cast. Further discrepancies arose from intentional or unintentional arithmetical errors between number of votes per stream and station totals of the votes for specific candidates. The MEC registered as many as 450 complaints about the integrity of the results.7Ibid.

Yet perhaps the climax of the elections—and the height of the drama—was the attempt by former president Banda to annul the polls and call for fresh elections within ninety days. Invoking section 88 (2) of the Malawi Constitution, Banda justified the annulment of the elections on the account of gross irregularities that, in her view, had substantially compromised the integrity of the polls. Though the annulment was reversed by the High Court, the MEC surprisingly conceded shortly thereafter that there were irreconcilable anomalies that necessitated vote recount because the integrity of the polls could no longer be guaranteed.8Godfrey Mapondera and David Smith, “Malawi President Joyce Banda Faces Electoral Humiliation and Possibly Jail,” The Guardian, May 29, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/may/29/malawian-president-joyce-banda-faces-electoral-humiliation-possibly-jail, accessed June, 29, 2014.

The MEC’s decision to recount the votes was challenged by DPP, whose candidate, Peter Mutharika, was leading by a decent margin after about thirty percent of the votes had been tallied. The DPP argued that the MEC had no constitutional mandate to undertake a vote recount and was mandated to release the results within an eight-day deadline, as stipulated in the constitution.

The High Court’s subsequent ruling forced the MEC to release the results although, by its own admission, there were serious irregularities that could only be resolved through a total recount. The Court ruled that while it was within the MEC’s mandate to recount the votes, it still had to comply with the eight-day limit to release the results. This effectively gave the electoral body less than two hours to recount over 7.5 million votes.9“Expert pushes for poll probe,” Nation on Sunday, June 8, 2014.

The May 20, 2014 elections drama also raises serious questions about the role of both international and local election observation missions. Even before the High Court verdict, almost all observer missions had declared the elections as free, fair, and credible. Of course, they all made the same caveat: the anomalies observed were not serious enough to compromise the integrity of the polls. Yet the MEC, as the ultimate arbiter, came to a different conclusion.10“What do observers ‘observe’ in elections,” Malawi News, June 14-20, 2014.

As early as May 23 the Malawi Electoral Support Network (MESN) had already made a statement on the outcome of the elections. It indicated that Peter Mutharika would receive between 32.7 and 39.3 percent of the vote; Lazarus Chakwera between 25.1 and 31.7 percent; Joyce Banda between 18.2 and 21.8 percent; and Atupele Muluzi between 11.9 and 15.5 percent.11“MESN Preliminary Statement on the Conduct of the Tripartite Elections,” Malawi Voice, May 23, 2014. Yet some of the anomalies reported were quite alarming. For instance, in one of the polling centers in Machinga district, 184,000 voters turned up against 38,000 registered voters and 90,000 of them voted for a particular candidate.

Should the May 20, 2014 polls therefore be touted as a democratic success story? Perhaps not. Besides the discussed drama and intrigue, the elections heralded a return to a regionalistic voting pattern that appeared to have been consigned to the dustbin of history when late president Bingu wa Mutharika won the May 2009 presidential polls with 67 percent mandate. This year, however, Peter Mutharika won the elections with a slender plurality of 36 percent, raising serious challenges about the prospects of effectively churning out an inclusive democratic political settlement in Malawi in the future. Very crucially, the drama underscores the overall challenge of treating Malawi’s 2014 elections as an event, rather than a process, as well as the limitations of electoral observation missions.

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