Opposition are favourites on eve of Malawi’s presidential election

Malawi’s President Peter Mutharika faces an uphill task to win a second term in a second attempt after a court nullified his re-election in May last year. Polls for the new election tomorrow (June 23), project a victory for the opposition alliance.

Some 6.8-million Malawians from a population of 18-million are registered to cast their votes between 6am and 6pm at 9 291 polling stations across the country.

Lazarus Chakwera, the leader of the country’s oldest political party and biggest opposition, the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), is widely tipped to win the elections after partnering with Saulos Chilima, leader of the newly-formed United Transformation Movement (UTM) and officially the country’s vice-president. The little-known Peter Kuwani, of the Mbakuwaku Movement for Development party, completes the list of candidates. He is currently polling at less than 2% of the vote.

Chakwera has appointed Chilima running mate and Mutharika has partnered with another 2019 presidential candidate, Atupele Muluzi, of the United Democratic Front (UDF), as both opposition and ruling parties seek to attain 50% plus 1 votes to win the elections.

In February, the high court, sitting as the Constitutional Court, nullified the 2019 elections, citing a number of electoral irregularities. Both Chilima and Chakwera had brought their own petitions against the election result to the court.

The Supreme Court later affirmed the decision, making Malawi the second African country after Kenya to nullify a presidential election.

But the results of the simultaneous parliamentary and local council elections remain valid, because they were not challenged.

Ahead of the new vote, opinion polls indicate that a majority of Malawians are dissatisfied with the general direction of the country.

A recent survey by the University of Malawi-based Institute for Public Opinion and Research (Ipor) revealed 87% of Malawians — regardless of party affiliation — say the country is heading in the wrong direction.

The same poll found that 53% of respondents expect Chakwera to win the elections, while 31% expect a Mutharika victory and 10% were undecided. Of those surveyed, 51% say they will vote for Chakwera, while 33% will vote for Mutharika.

Boniface Dulani, Ipor’s lead researcher, says an opposition victory is highly likely.

“Apart from the opinion poll, the president has hardly been on the campaign trail. The [opposition] alliance has spread out using its numbers to crisscross the country. The government has been embroiled in numerous corruption scandals,” Dulani said.

Joseph Chunga, a political scientist at the University of Malawi, said apart from the opinion polls projecting opposition victory, “over the entire campaign period, the opposition have outplayed the incumbent in terms of aggressively pursuing votes across the country. [Mutharika] stayed away from the campaign trail until the very end.”

But he said it was uncertain how credible the elections would be. He expects the opposition to monitor the electoral process carefully, especially given their concerns regarding the independence of the electoral commission.

Mutharika has been campaigning on promises of stability and development and accuses the opposition of being forces of anarchy, citing the violent demonstrations that plagued the country in the aftermath of last year’s disputed election.

The opposition is tapping into dissatisfaction among citizens. It is promising to create jobs and to end corruption and economic stagnation in one of the world’s poorest nations.

Mutharika came to power in 2014 after defeating rival Chakwera and then president Joyce Banda whose re-election was undermined by a huge corruption scandal in 2013.

Since the opposition rejected the poll results last year, Mutharika has effectively run a government under siege amid street protests that carried on for more than six months until the five judges of the Constitutional Court nullified the elections.

Mutharika has decried the nullification of the results as a “judicial coup” and sought to thwart the election process. He asked Parliament — in vain — to reverse the court orders, delayed funding for new elections and, most recently, attempted to fire the country’s two most senior judges.

Covid-19 is keeping European Union, Commonwealth, African Union and Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa observers away from the elections.

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Golden Matonga
Golden Matonga is an award-winning journalist, columnist and blogger based in Malawi’s capital Lilongwe.

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