Opposition candidate Lazarus Chakwera achieved victory in the re-run of Malawi’s presidential election held on June 23rd. With his inauguration as president on June 28, many observers are now watching intently to see if this heralds in a new era of democratic alternation in African politics.
Malawi initially held its presidential election in May of 2019, with incumbent Peter Mutharika of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) seeking to win a second term following his initial election in 2014. In his first term, he was credited with improving infrastructure across the country, though he was also dogged by allegations of corruption and unfairly allocating resources to regions where his DPP support was highest.
Following the May 2019 polls, these allegations were joined by opposition claims that Mutharika and the DPP had altered thousands of ballot papers, using whiteout fluid to erase votes for other candidates. The country was rocked by protests calling for the election results to be annulled, with activists labeling the polls the “Tipp-Ex Election,” after a brand name for correction fluid.
The opposition Tonse Alliance, made up of Chakwera’s Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and several other factions, filed a petition with Malawi’s Constitutional Court to have the results overturned based on these irregularities. In February of 2020, the Court agreed, annulling the results and scheduling a rerun for June. This was only the second time in history that an African high court had overturned an election on appeal, after Kenya’s Supreme Court invalidated the results of its 2017 presidential contest.
Unlike in Kenya, however, where incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta won the rerun as well, Malawi saw an opposition victory last month, with Chakwera winning 58.57% of the vote. His victory was welcomed by other prominent regional opposition figures. Nelson Chamisa, Zimbabwe’s main opposition leader tweeted “well done Malawi!” and extended “kudos to state organs’ professionalism & citizens’ vigilance.” Zambiam opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema, who is gearing up for an election in that country next year, said that Malawians “had set a great example for Africa.” And Mmusi Maimane, formerly the leader of South Africa’s main opposition party, forecasted that “change is coming.”
The unprecedented annulment and subsequent opposition victory in Malawi’s election has led many observers to ask what comes next, wondering if this is a turning point in African democratic entrenchment.
One of the biggest factors in this regard comes from the Constitutional Court’s February ruling, which not only invalidated the 2019 election results but also declared Malawi’s first-past-the-post system of choosing a victor to be unconstitutional. This meant that future candidates would need to eclipse the 50% mark in order to be declared the winner, and the ruling resulted in the (ultimately successful) unification of the previously fragmented Malawian opposition into the Tonse Alliance.
Andrew Harding, the BBC’s Africa correspondent, sees this aspect in particular as setting an important precedent for the rest of Africa, writing that this unified opposition is “sure to encourage [other] opposition candidates and parties to enter into strategic coalitions, giving them an unanticipated boost.”
Jonathan Moakes, a South African former opposition strategist, agrees with this assessment. Calling the Malawian case a “blueprint” for tackling repression and authoritarianism from governments, he calls for “main opposition parties [to] come together, cast the egos of their leaders aside, and work out a path to victory that combines their strengths into an unstoppable force for change.”
But it is not only the successful unification of opposition movements that is creating some cautious optimism among observers. Calum Fisher, a researcher of African politics at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, sees the precedent of judicial independence set by Kenya’s Supreme Court in 2017, and built upon by the Malawian Constitutional Court in February, as vital. He writes that these courts “have lain down a marker for judiciaries across the continent, a significant development in a profession in which actions in other jurisdictions matter and judges talk to and learn from one another. First Kenya, now Malawi – a hugely important precedent is, perhaps, beginning to be established in African politics.”
Nevertheless, caution is still warranted. Harding cautions against concluding “that the route to power lies [only] through legal challenges and sustained, and sometimes violent, street protests.” Instead, he highlights the more difficult lessons from Malawi as the ones that other opposition groups must internalize. Making “difficult compromises, patient coalition-building, solid policy platforms, and a willingness to reach beyond narrow ethnic or regional strongholds” were the ingredients for the Tonse Alliance’s success, and these are the components that must be replicated far and wide across a continent that has for decades seen only fragmented opposition to authoritarianism.
Succeeding in these dimensions could set opposition groups up for even greater success, as donors are more likely to financially back unified campaigns with realistic prospects of victory, and other “resources, both human and financial, flow to parties that show the maturity to unite and the ability to deliver a compelling message of change and hope.”
Thus, Malawi’s landmark election has engendered a flurry of cautious optimism across Africa’s opposition landscape. The effective unification of nine opposition parties into the Tonse Alliance, the successful legal challenge to the 2019 polls, and the judicial independence maintained by Malawi’s Constitutional Court in the face of official intimidation can all be used as a blueprint for opposition candidates in the rest of Africa. Some important bellwethers in measuring the spread of this blueprint are three countries that have upcoming presidential elections in the face of increasingly authoritarian incumbents. These are Tanzania (in October), Uganda (in February, 2021), and Zambia (by August, 2021). The degree to which opposition parties in these countries are able to build off of the Tonse Alliance’s democratic momentum will go a long way towards determining how adaptable the lessons from Malawi will be across the continent.