Lessons From Malawi's 2019 Elections

Speeches Shim

Thursday, June 27, 2019
Malawi Electroal Support Network graphic showing the 2109 Tripartite elections results estimate.
Bryan Dwyer / USAID

On Tuesday, May 21, 2019, Malawians went to the polls to participate in their tripartite elections for president, parliamentarians, and district representatives. Across Malawi, 5,105,983 citizens cast their vote and participated in Malawi’s sixth national election since the end of Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s 30 years of post-colonial rule. On Monday, May 27, 2019, the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) declared the incumbent Arthur P. Mutharika of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) the winner with 38.57 percent of the vote. 

In part due to considerable programmatic support - including USAID assistance - monitors observed commendable improvements in the MEC’s electoral preparation, voting process and results transmission system compared to previous elections.  Notably, as shown above, the MEC’s final result closely tracked with the USAID-supported non-partisan parallel vote tabulation, implemented by the Malawi Election Support Network (MESN) and National Democratic Institute (NDI).  

In addition, despite pre-electoral intimidation and violence against female candidates, 44 of Malawi’s 193 new parliamentarians are women, up from just 32 in 2014. 

Nevertheless, many voters have raised questions about the integrity of the process and Malawian opposition parties have petitioned to the courts to annul the results.  While USAID/Malawi’s Democracy, Rights and Governance (DRG) team played a significant role in supporting the MEC to deliver a credible election, as well as civil society’s oversight of the process, more work remains to be done.  USAID will continue to provide post election support, through NDI and International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), to build confidence in Malawi’s political processes and improve citizen-state relations.  

Malawi Elections 2019 Tripartite Polls
Polling station opens in Blantyre rural.
Bryan Dwyer

USAID Supported a Stronger Electoral Process...

In 2018, USAID joined DFID, European Union, Norway, Irish Aid, and UNDP by investing $1 million in the UNDP’s “Election Basket Fund,” which was established to pool international donor resources in support of the MEC’s election strategy, preparation, management, and tabulation. UNDP led the donor community in helping the MEC with critical institutional reforms and electoral preparations, registered 6.8 million voters through newly-issued biometric ID cards, engaged with political parties in preparation for the elections, supported women’s participation in the electoral process, strengthened the capacity of the Malawi Police Services to mitigate electoral violence, and supported election-day logistics and results transmission.

To complement the UNDP Basket Fund efforts, USAID and DFID jointly provided $4 million to the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) to improve civil society and political party oversight and engagement. NDI and its partner MESN coordinated with the MEC on civic and voter education initiatives and mobilized long term observers.  Working with with Democracy Works Foundation, MISA Malawi and broad group of local actors, NDI produced three televised presidential debates and trained political party monitors for election day oversight.

Given the highly competitive race for president, strengthening citizen confidence in the results management process was critical.  On election day, MESN and NDI deployed over 900 observers to monitor all day and conduct a parallel vote tabulation to try to give Malawians greater confidence that the tally of ballots was transparent and accurate. NDI’s partner Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) and the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Malawi tracked and reported on media bias and established a fact-checker to combat fake news on social media.

IFES helped the MEC to train judges on electoral dispute resolution, established an online election Early Warning/Early Response (EWER) system to track and mitigate electoral violence, and  provided technical assistance on strategic communications in the lead-up to the elections, and throughout the voting and tabulation processes. 

In addition to these measures, USAID’s DRG team coordinated the US Government observer effort on election day. More than 80 observers from the US, UK, Ireland, Japan, Norway, Canada travelled together to visit polling and tabulation stations in 13 of Malawi’s 28 districts and submitted 240 observer reports.

Malawi Elections 2019 Tripartite
Malawian gentleman displays his “I voted” ink.
Bryan Dwyer

...But Challenges Remain

Through these and other efforts, the MEC and electoral stakeholders addressed many critical challenges from the 2014 election.  While observers noted a few logistical and organizational problems in some of the more than 5000 polling stations throughout Malawi, the consensus of the observer missions are reflected in the African Union’s Election Observer Mission preliminary statement, which concludes that:

 ...the 2019 Tripartite Elections have provided Malawians with the opportunity to choose their leaders at various layers of government in accordance with the legal framework for elections in Malawi, and in accordance with the principles espoused in the various instruments of the AU. The elections took place in a peaceful environment and at the time of this statement, the mission had not notes any serious concerns with the process, either witnessed or observed.

Despite these efforts and a generally well conducted election, the public reaction post-election has been largely negative highlighting remaining gaps as well as a concerning level of mistrust between the public towards its democratic institutions and political actors.  Neither improved electoral transparency and preparations, election-day operations nor an independent PVT has assuaged the public’s concerns over election rigging.  Since the results were announced, Malawi has seen continued protests - some marred by violence - calling for the annulment of the results and resignation of MEC Commissioners.  Once again Malawi’s electoral outcome is in the hands of the courts.  

Implications for Future

Clearly, we need to do additional work to support both Malawi’s election management and to increase the citizenry’s trust in democratic institutions.  The trust issue is critical.  Afrobarometer’s recent study underscores these issues in its June 2019 paper that shows that in 2017 only 57% of Malawians “agree” or “agree very strongly” that leaders should be chosen through regular, open, and honest elections. This means out of 34 African countries surveyed, Malawi’s trust in democratic systems is 3rd from the bottom - a concerning position for a democracy that has just completed its sixth election.

So what can we learn from this?  Below are a few considerations.

  • Technical reforms were critical and commendable - but that was not enough.  Violations of the political parties act ban on handouts, incidents of violence and campaign intimidation, and media bias were present in the period leading up to the election and continued to feed an atmosphere of mistrust. 
  • Political parties and claims of rigging heightened mistrust.  Throughout the campaign period, all major parties predicted rigging by the others.  Such statements likely prepared supporters to expect to be disenfranchised, sewing doubt in the integrity of the electoral outcome even before it had begun. 
  • The PVT is a powerful tool but requires public messaging.  The PVT results were announced quickly after MEC released its results.  However, greater public information to highlight its findings and process could have improved the public’s understanding.
  • Electoral reforms should, once again, be considered to build public confidence.  

Last updated: September 21, 2021

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