Blantyre — Lazarus Chakwera, a preacher who heads Malawi’s main opposition party, is seen as the front-runner heading into a court-ordered election rerun on June 23 after forming an alliance with popular vice-president Saulos Chilima.
The Malawi supreme court of appeal, the top judicial authority, last month upheld the constitutional court’s annulment of a shambolic May 2019 vote that handed President Peter Mutharika a second five-year term. It also ordered that the successful candidate must win an outright majority rather than the most votes as in the past — a change that should work in a united opposition’s favour.
Mutharika, a constitutional law expert, has ruled the landlocked southern African nation since 2014. While he has been credited with bolstering economic growth, he has been criticised for not clamping down on graft. The government shouldered some of the blame for the flawed vote — which included correction fluid being used to alter results — and failing to decisively tackle political violence that followed.
“This is a government whose image is tattered,” Ernest Thindwa, a political scientist at the University of Malawi, said by phone from the southern town of Zomba. “I don’t see how it can win this coming election.”
Securing a credible vote is a key test for a country the UN ranks as one of the world’s least developed after the ruling to scrap the previous result was hailed as a boost for democracy. It was only the second time a vote had been overturned in Africa. The judiciary rejected a decision by the president last week to put the chief justice on leave pending retirement.
The nation of 18-million relies on tourism, tea and burley tobacco, a low-quality variety of the leaf, for the bulk of its export revenue. Aid from international donors, the World Bank and the IMF helps shore up its finances.
Chakwera, with Chilima as his running mate, should win the election in the first round with 51% support to Mutharika’s 33%, a survey of 1,348 adults published this month by the Zomba-based Institute of Public Opinion and Research shows. Eighty-five percent of respondents said the country is going in the “wrong direction”.
Mutharika won 38.6% of the annulled votes last year to Chakwera’s 35.4%. Chilima, who quit the ruling party in 2018 to protest against a perceived failure to clamp down on graft but retained the deputy president’s post because he was directly elected, finished third with 20%.
Chakwera, 65, has exuded confidence on the campaign trail and drawn large crowds to rallies despite the prevalence of the coronavirus. The country has had more than 700 confirmed cases.
“Our combination is unbeatable because everywhere I have gone people have been demanding that I partner with Saulos,” he said at a campaign event in Blantyre, the commercial capital.
Chilima, a 47-year-old former telecommunications executive who heads the United Transformation Party, has criss-crossed the country to canvass support for Chakwera. Their promises include production subsidies for farmers, a million jobs for the youth within a year and a clampdown on corruption.
Chilima commands strong support in Malawi’s northern region, which is home to about 14% of registered voters. There is widespread discontent among northerners over Mutharika’s failure to build a new university, an international airport and other promised projects, according to George Phiri, a political analyst from the University of Livingstonia.
With Chakwera commanding strong backing in Malawi’s central region, and Mutharika’s support base concentrated in the south, Phiri sees a change in power as likely — even if there is an attempt to rig the vote.
The nation’s electoral commission, whose head has been replaced, has given assurances that the vote will be credible and said it should not be judged by its predecessor’s mistakes.
Mutharika, 79, who has pledged to turn Malawi into a developed nation if re-elected, has said he remains confident of retaining office.
“If you give me another five years the country will be transformed,” he told a campaign rally in the capital, Lilongwe, on June 17. “It will be like SA, Singapore, London, America or Canada.”