My re-introduction to Malawi has come at a turbulent and polarised time. The Presidential elections held a month ago were conducted freely and peacefully but were allegedly marred by irregularities. Incumbent President Peter Mutharika, of the Democratic Progressive Party, was re-elected in a close-run three-way contest.
The Government and its supporters claim that it has been a free and fair election and insist that it is time to accept the results and move on. The opposition and a range of active citizens have dubbed it the “tippex election” since tally-sheets from voting stations were amended by the use of tippex correction fluid. Photos of such sheets went viral on social media, quickly becoming a national joke. What was not funny was the damage to people’s confidence in the electoral process. The respected Public Affairs Committee, for example, found that “the results of these elections lack credibility.”
The opposition parties who lost out in the election have raised a court case, calling for annulment of the election and a re-run. Massive (largely peaceful) demonstrations took place in the main cities on 20 June. Meanwhile Government messaging on the mainstream media maintains that all was well with the election and the problem is just bad losers making trouble. Critics point out that it was the failure of the opposition to mount a united challenge that allowed the DPP to be re-elected with less than 40% of the vote.
From the limited contacts I have had in just one week, I sense a mood for change in the country. People are grateful for the democratic freedoms that were hard-won a generation ago. But, for the great majority, these have not brought the hoped-for prosperity. Instead, to many, it looks as if a small elite has appropriated the national resources, leaving ordinary Malawians in deepening poverty.
Rather than the machinery of national government being used to overcome injustice and drive economic development, many feel that it is deployed primarily to secure the interests of those in power. The politics of patronage is alive and well, expressed in a region-based politics where voters tend to favour the party identified with their home area in the hope that some benefit will trickle down to them.
Coming from the UK at this moment, it feels like a look in the mirror. A country divided. Deep regional differences. An elite getting richer while ordinary folk lose out. A flawed national vote defining the future. A government elected on just over one-third of the vote and struggling for legitimacy. An opposition seemingly unable to mount an effective challenge. A failure of the political system to address urgent and important issues of inequality, climate change and sustainability. Yet in both countries are many good people longing and working for a just and equitable society. In both there is clear need for a gamechanger.