Malawi anxiously awaits verdict on alleged presidential election fraud

3 min

Lilongwe (Malawi) (AFP)

Malawians waited with bated breath on Monday for a ruling on whether the controversial vote that saw President Peter Mutharika re-elected last May would be annulled, a verdict that is expected to stoke turmoil in the traditionally peaceful southern African country.

The case has gripped the nation and kept Malawians glued to radio stations for hours on end listening to live broadcast of witnesses presenting evidence of alleged vote rigging during a six-month-long hearing.

On Monday security was tightened with a heavy military presence around the court and businesses pulled down their shutters for the week, fearing violence erupting after the ruling is announced.

Judges were driven to court in a military armoured vehicle.

An army helicopter occasionally hovered above the courthouse and the central business district as the 500-page verdict was read out.

Sporadic protests have broken out across the country since Mutharika was declared the winner by a narrow margin in the May 21 presidential elections with 38.5 percent of the vote.

Runner-up Lazarus Chakwera, who lost by just 159,000 votes, alleges he was robbed of victory.

His Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and the opposition United Transformation Movement (UTM) have petitioned the courts to annul the poll.

"It is clear that the use of Tippex (correction fluid) was employed by (electoral commission) officers to hide votes," said judge Ivy Kamanga, reading from judgement.

"Use of Tippex was unjustifiable and an irregularity," she said, adding the way in which the electoral commission "dealt with the alterations was not in line with the law, hence it was irregular".

The court also said only a quarter of the results sheets were verified and said it "finds this to be a serious malpractice that undermined the elections".

It is the first time a presidential election has been challenged on legal grounds in Malawi since independence from Britain in 1964.

"Credible, free and fair elections form a solid foundation for democracy," judge chairman Healey Potani said in a preamble to the judgement.

Protesters took to the streets over several months last year demanding the resignation of the electoral commission chief, and many demonstrations turned violent.

"There will be winners and losers and we are not sure how the losers will react," said Malawian politics professor Michael Jana.

- 'Expecting change' -

Anticipation was high in the financial capital Blantyre, Malawi's second-largest city where the court is located.

"I'm expecting change," said Chatonda Jembe, who works as an administrator.

"Not necessarily change in leadership (but) change in attitude."

"The leadership on both sides of the political divide know they can no longer take people for granted."

Anger flared last month after Chief Justice Andrew Nyirenda claimed bribes had been offered to the five judges presiding over the case.

Malawi's anti-graft body vowed to probe the allegations and arrested top banker Thom Mpinganjira last week.

Both Chakwera and UTM candidate Saulos Chilima -- who were in court on Monday -- have urged supporters to maintain peace and accept the court's decision, regardless of the outcome.

- 'Pivotal moment' -

Mutharika has repeatedly dismissed their accusations and brushed off doubts about the official results.

"The government urges all political parties in the country and other stakeholders to respect the rule of law," said government spokesman Mark Botomani. "Destruction of the country is counter-productive."

If the judges rule in favour of the opposition, Mutharika's party is likely to appeal before the supreme court.

Law professor Danwood Chirwa said that process was likely to be settled within two months.

"If it takes longer than this there will be too much chaos," he said.

In a joint statement, British, American and several European ambassadors referred Thursday to the verdict as a "pivotal moment" in Malawi's history.

It echoes a historic decision by Kenya's judiciary to annul presidential election results over claims of widespread irregularities in 2017.