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News | 6th June 2019
 

Elections Malawi style

 
 
 

Bob Milne, former Langholm minister, sends his second report from his six-month stay in Malawi.

THE election has been and gone but it took its time going.
I was in Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial capital, and, but for geography, would be the civic capital, too.
I stayed at a friend’s on the Sunday night before Tuesday’s voting day.
I said in my previous piece that Malawian elections are loud but I also knew campaigning stopped on the Sunday.
I began to have my doubts; through the day and evening, the noise got louder and louder.
It reached ridiculous levels at 9.30pm and I started to think sleep would be impossible that night. The time ticked round to 10pm and, wow, all was quiet.
Well, quiet, apart from all the guard dogs barking for another 20 minutes until they, too, realised the din had stopped and there was nothing to bark at.
And that was it. The next day there were no politicians on TV, no adverts on the radio and thank you, thank you, no loudspeaker trucks.
There were still all the flags on lamp posts, trees and bridges. A lot of people still sported their preferred political colours but no chanting or dancing.
By late afternoon, the roads started to get busy. There was no postal voting; you must go in person to your allotted polling station.
Awkward
This led to an awkward moment for the leading opposition candidate who, having lived and been registered in the capital of Lilongwe, where his constituency is, went to vote only to discover he had been registered in the place where he grew up.
Being a senior politician has some advantage and, after a few minutes of arguing, his registration was transferred, but I did wonder whether this was a scenario repeated elsewhere that Tuesday. Monday evening, though, was blissfully quiet.
Voting day dawned promisingly; a nice warm day but not too hot. Ignoring advice not to venture out, I walked into town because I needed a couple of things and I have never seen it so quiet.
It was an absolute delight to walk around without being hassled and you could walk through the market without being blocked and jostled.
I had noticed I was becoming recognised around the place but was taken aback when I was asked more than once whether I had voted yet?
I pointed out I was not entitled to a vote which brought the response each time of “Really?”.
For the record, if you have seven years’ residency, you can vote in Malawi; not three months. Nice, though, that people think I have been around for a while.
Voting started at 6am or, at least, should have done, although several stations were reported as opening late, in some cases by as much as two hours which, given queues started to form by 5am, must have been frustrating, but there were no reports of any trouble in the queues.
Polling stations were supposed to close at 6pm but where there were still queues, they stayed open into the night. It’s dark by 5.30pm and most stations are in the open air.
Mystery
In a couple of cases the stations reopened the next day. Quite who decided which ones and why remains a mystery.
There was no violence on polling day but a couple of arrests were made for “attempting to bribe voters”.
It used to be legal to give voters money as they entered the polling station but is now illegal. Two men still handed out 20 and 50 kwacha notes so they believed votes could be bought for 2p and 5p. Even in a land as impoverished as Malawi, that must be optimistic.
Blantyre
The count did not begin until Wednesday but no results were released. Officials had to send their counts to the Malawian Electoral Commission (MEC) in Blantyre.
The count for all three elections (presidential, parliamentary and council) were treated in the same way. Party reps could monitor, but not comment on, the results.
Nothing was announced on Wednesday or Thursday. By Friday, people started to ask why. The MEC reported some anomalies which had to be investigated but all opposition parties smelled a rat and accused the president’s party of interference.
Much to many people’s surprise, there was no violence even over the weekend when still nothing was announced.
The opposition threw a spanner in the works by gaining a High Court injunction to stop the process on the grounds they claimed they had evidence of interference, namely, some polling returns having had figures blotted out and replaced as well as sheets from either end of the country having the same handwriting.
On Monday the court overturned the injunction and the MEC lost no time in announcing that the sitting president had won by 158,969 votes or 3.16 per cent of the total.
Despite the bad feeling, there was no violence but even as the president was sworn into office, his defeated opponent pledged to pursue his grievances through the courts but it is highly unlikely that will prove successful.
So, I did not need to lay in stores of food after all but it meant I did not have to shop for several days as I ate my way through it all.
Vegan
I even ate the vegan soya mince I bought by mistake but must report it was quite tasty, once I added three beef stock cubes.
So, that was my experience of the Malawian election, in many ways an anti-climax but also reassuring that, despite some raised eyebrows, the results were accepted peaceably.
Where doubts remained, it was sought to resolve them in the courts, not in the streets.
Democracy in Africa is a delicate child but in Malawi at least it seems to be growing into a robust, healthy adolescent. Long may it grow and develop.

 
 
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