Yesterday, as the nation held its breath, everyone was talking about living through an historic day in the life of the nation. After months of suspense, the constitutional court issued a monumental 500-page judgement in which it declared last May’s Presidential election “invalid, null and void”.
The court found that the “irregularities and anomalies have been so widespread, systematic and grave that the integrity of the results have been seriously compromised.” It concluded: “We hold that the first respondent (Peter Mutharika) was not duly elected during the 21 May elections. We hereby order the nullification of the said elections.”
The implications of this judgement are far-reaching and it will take some time to come to terms with them. A few things are apparent already.
The respondents – the President and the Electoral Commission – have a right of appeal so this may not necessarily be the end of the judicial proceedings.
The judges have demonstrated the independence of the judiciary. It is an extremely unwelcome judgement from the point of view of the incumbent Government. In a context where the executive branch of Government has tended to call the shots, the independence demonstrated by the judges is significant in terms of the balance of powers.
So far, I have seen little comment in the international media on the fact that the delegations of election observers from the “international community” declared the election “free and fair” – a point repeatedly invoked by the incumbent Governement to legitimize its position. It has taken Malawi’s own internal review procedure to demonstrate that the election was not fairly conducted.
Of course, the judgement creates a political crisis for the country. Now it is up to Malawi to turn crisis into opportunity. The court case turned largely on the procedural technicalities of conducting an election fairly and in accordance with the law. But it will be a catalyst for the consideration of wider and deeper social and political issues. For Malawi to come to terms with these will require all sections of society to contribute to the creation of a more just and equitable society. Yesterday’s judgement at least creates a moment of opportunity.