Malawi 2019 election campaigns reach fever pitch

Written by Lusako Munyenyembe

The 21 May 2019 polls in Malawi will see the election of a president, members of parliament and local government councillors. As the country gears up for the elections, there is palpable excitement with campaign rallies held daily.

There are eight candidates in Malawi’s presidential race: Lazarus Chakwera, Malawi Congress Party (MCP), Peter Mutharika, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Atupele Muluzi, United Democratic Front (UDF), Saulos Chilima, United Transformation Movement (UTM), John Chisi (Umodzi Party), Cassim Chilumpha (Tikonze People’s Movement, Reverend Kaliya (Independent), Peter Kuwani Mbakuwaku, Movement for Development (MMD). One candidate (Joyce Banda of the People’s Party) withdrew from the race in March 2019 and decided to support the MCP candidate, Lazarus Chakwera.

A total of 1,331 candidates are contesting 193 parliamentary seats. Although Malawi has more than 50 registered political parties, only 13 are fielding parliamentary candidates in the elections. Four parties (DPP, MCP, UDF and UTM) are each fielding more than 100 parliamentary candidates.

The People’s Party (PP) will field 81 parliamentary candidates while three political parties (People’s Transformation Movement, MMD and National Salvation Front are each fielding only one parliamentary candidate.

Another 501 candidates, representing nearly 38% of the parliamentary contestants, are standing on independent platforms. In terms of gender, only 313 parliamentary candidates are women, representing just under 24% of the total.

Funding and politics

The 2019 elections are going to be the first to be held under a new Political Parties (registration and regulation) Act which came into force in December 2018. Among many issues, this law introduces several clauses aimed at regulating the funding of political parties, including a requirement that parties should declare all funds exceeding K1-million (approximately $1,398) from individuals and K2-million (approximately $2,796) from companies.

The law also bans the practice of giving handouts during election campaigns and sets out a new criterion for registering and deregistering political parties. This includes a clause that states that parties that fail to win at least two seats in parliamentary elections or at least five percent of national votes for parliamentary elections in two successive elections should be deregistered.

Given that more than 40 political parties are not fielding candidates in the 2019 elections, there is a very high likelihood that after the next elections in 2024, the country will see the deregistration of many parties.

Coalitions and implications

There have been several attempts to build coalitions and alliances. A grouping of small political parties, for example, agreed to field one joint candidate, Cassim Chilumpha, under the banner of Tikonze People’s Movement. The UTM Party, led by incumbent state Vice President Saulos Chilima, entered a short-lived alliance with the People’s Party of former president Joyce Banda, which unravelled after barely three days.

The Malawi Congress Party (MCP) meanwhile, has entered into an alliance with Khumbo Kachali of the Freedom Party. After her short-lived alliance with UTM, Joyce Banda withdrew from the presidential race in March 2019 and endorsed Lazarus Chakwera of the MCP. For its part, the ruling DPP entered into an electoral pact with the Democratic People’s Congress. However, it is unlikely that this alliance will yield much as the party is fielding only 13 parliamentary candidates.

Management of the electoral process

The general consensus is that the Malawi Electoral Commission has done a good job so far in preparing for the elections. The registration of voters used a biometric voter registration system. There has also been an increased sense of transparency, with the commission providing electoral stakeholders regular updates on election preparations. There were, however, a number of hiccups in the process leading up to the voter registration exercise, that initially led to accusations of possible election tampering.

For example, there were a few reported cases of faulty registration equipment and in one case, the voter registration kit was found in a train in Mozambique. There were also a few reported cases of missing voter registration equipment. However, the commission was able to provide responses that appear to have assuaged the concerns of all key stakeholders.

Overall, 6,859,570 voters registered for the May 2019 elections. The number of registered voters in 2019 is down from the 7,537,548 who registered in the last elections in 2014. The lower number of registered voters for 2018 elections has been attributed to several factors, including disillusionment with the performance of elected leaders. It is also worth noting that 56% of the registered voters are women, while the youth make up 54%.

Campaigns and no-go zones

The law stipulates that the official campaign period starts three months before the elections and ends 24 hours before the opening of polls.

Accordingly, this means that the official campaign period began on 19 March 2019 and ends on 19 May. However, in reality, political parties began their campaigns in early 2018. The campaigns take the form of major rallies around the country and some door-to-door campaigning.

Thus far, there have been no major incidents reported during the campaign. However, there have been several reported cases of violence perpetrated mostly by ruling DPP Youth cadets against candidates and supporters of opposition parties. There have also been a few episodes where traditional leaders are reported to not only be actively campaigning for the ruling party in the elections, but also declaring their areas as no-go-zones for members of the opposition political parties.

As part of the campaign, the Media Institute of Southern Africa, Malawi chapter, has, in co-ordination with other stakeholders, organised a series of presidential debates aired on television and radio. These have included three vice presidential candidate debates that involved three of the main political parties (MCP, UDF and UTM). The ruling DPP declined to take part.

There have also been three presidential debates. The first one took place on 29 March and featured the presidential candidates from MCP (Chakwera), UDF (Muluzi) and UTM (Chilima). Incumbent President Peter Mutharika of the DPP also refused to take part. A second debate was held on 2 April and featured three candidates from small parties, namely John Chisi (UP), Peter Kuwani (MMD) and Reverend Kaliya (Independent). One candidate, (Cassim Chilumpha of Tikonze People’s Movement) did not show up.

Poll is wide open

The election appears to be wide open, although the ruling party has a slight advantage. According to an opinion poll conducted by the Institute of Public Opinion and Research in August/September 2018, the top three candidates were Peter Mutharika (27%); Lazarus Chakwera (25%) and Saulos Chilima (16%).

However, with almost 22% of the survey respondents either undecided or refusing to answer, it effectively means that any of the three presidential candidates can win.

It will be interesting to see how the different alliances impact on the final election outcome. In particular, the MCP-PP Alliance might give the MCP presidential candidate a slight edge in areas where former president Joyce Banda remains popular. DM

Munyenyembe is a Programme Manager for Transparency and Accountability at the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa.