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Close call on tightly contested Malawi elections

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On May 21, Malawi could see the most tightly contested elections yet, as the country votes for President and local councillors. This marks the fifth election since the country’s return to multiparty democracy.

Malawi subscribes to the first-past-the-post system, which means, the candidate with the most votes in the single round of voting wins. During the 2014 elections, Peter Mutharika became President with 36% of the votes.

In 2017, a special law commission suggested that the country change to a system that requires the leading candidate to win with a 50%+1 majority, however parliament rejected the proposal. Therefore, the same system used in the last election of 2014 remains in place in this year’s highly contested elections which could result in the victor winning with less than 30%.

In this year’s elections there are seven candidates running for president, where three of those are in with a better chance than the others. The incumbent President Peter Mutharika of the ruling Democratic Progress Party (DPP) has an advantage as he has done enough in his first term to expect an increased mandate.

Lazarus Chakwera, leader of the main opposition party Malawi Congress Party (MCP), will be hoping to do better than in the previous elections by capitalising on frustrations with the current government.

While, Vice-President Saulos Chilima who established the United Transformation Movement (UTM) in 2018 also stands a fair chance to win these elections.

Race to State House

Malawi faces an innumerable number of socioeconomic problems. More than half the population lives in poverty, with just 11% of people having access to electricity, and the economy relying heavily on agriculture which is vulnerable to external shocks. Malawi’s young people are faced with high unemployment rates, and job creation has so far been the outstanding issue in the election campaign.

However when coming to the May 21 elections, it is likely that voting patterns will be clustered according to Malawi’s three regions, as has been the case in the previous elections. The ruling DPP’s stronghold is the Southern Region, especially around Mutharika’s home area of the Lhomwe belt. The party has also traditionally done well in the Central Region’s district of Ntcheu, where the president’s running mate Everton Chimulirenji is from.

This strategy could, however, be complicated by the candidacy of Vice-President Chilima and running-mate Michael Usi, which mirrors the Mutharika- Chimulirenji ticket. Chilima is from Ntcheu and comedian Usi from Mulanje in the Lhomwe belt.

Vice-President Chilima had a fall out with Mutharika and left the DPP in 2018, taking some senior party members with, Chilima formed the UTM, which greatly grew in less than a year after its formation. Soon after it was formed, the party established itself as a real contender in the upcoming elections. However, with 46-year-old Chilima having had held no office before 2014 and his running mate Michael Usi as a political new comer, it remains to be seen if voters will be willing to take a chance on a party with such little political experience.

The MCP hopes to take advantage of these complications in the upcoming elections. This long-standing party ruled Malawi from 1964 to 1994, mostly under a one-party system in which President Hastings Banda often resorted to brutality and human rights abuses. More recently, though, the party’s leader Chakwera has led a resurgence in the party and managed to shake off some of the MCP’s historical reputation.

In 2014, Chakwara lost the elections by just 448,519 votes and officially made the MCP the country’s official opposition in parliament. He finished ahead of then president Joyce Banda, who is now in an electoral alliance with the MCP. This and other partnerships could help the main opposition extend its support from beyond its stronghold of the Central Region. In 2014, Banda did well in the Northern Region and is from the eastern part of the Southern Region, while Chakwera’s running mate Sidik Mia is a former MP in the Chikwawa district in the far south.

After the vote

With elections a couple of hours away, the results could easily be contested. Both Mutharika and Chilima appear to be preparing for such an outcome and have in the past accused each other of plotting to rig the vote. The clash between the president and his deputy not only marks a new low, but also reflects how much is riding on the election for the DPP and the UTM.

Unlike the MCP, which has survived as an opposition party for decades, the DPP and UTM could struggle if they do not win. At 78-years-old, Mutharika would be unlikely to contest again and the DPP may find it difficult to stay intact without him. Meanwhile, chances are Chilima will abandon politics if he does not become president, as he is not running to be an MP and could easily return to the private sector, where he previously had a successful career.

The close race also suggests that parliament is likely to be heavily divided. This could mean that smaller parties such as the former ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) could prove significant. Since 2014, Mutharika has had to enrol the support of that opposition party’s 14 MPs to pass legislation. In return, party leader Atupele Muluzi has been made a member of the cabinet, while the corruption case against former president Bakili Muluzi, Atupele’s father, has since been delayed.

Following the 2019 May 21 vote, the UDF and other smaller parties may again be looking to be the king-makers in what is set to be a divided contest. Whether they will be negotiating with the DPP, UTM or MCP remains something to look forward to a couple of hours before elections open.

First Posted: Africanarguments.org

 

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