Malawians will return to the polls on Tuesday in a hotly contested presidential election rerun, being held almost five months after the Constitutional Court annulled the results of a disputed vote last year.
The country’s electoral commission had initially declared incumbent President Peter Mutharika the narrow winner of the May 2019 election with a 38.57 percent share of the vote.
The results led to widespread protests by the main opposition who alleged foul play.
Lazarus Chakwera, who came second with 35.41 percent, and Saulos Chilima, who finished third with 20.24 percent, went to court to challenge the result.
In a unanimous ruling, a five-judge panel threw out the results citing “widespread, systematic and grave” irregularities and ordered fresh elections within 150 days.
Crucially, the court also stipulated that a presidential candidate must now secure an absolute majority of 50 percent plus one to be declared the winner of the race. Since Malawi’s return to multiparty competition in 1994, the election had been determined by the first-past-the-post system in which the contender with most votes is declared the winner regardless of whether they receive an outright majority.
The electoral commission announced in March that the vote will be held on July 2 but opposition legislators passed a resolution in parliament setting June 23 as the election date.
According to the electoral commission, some 6.8 million Malawians are eligible to cast ballots at more than 5,000 polling stations across the landlocked country of 17.5 million people.
Three candidates are in the running for the country’s top job but only two stand a chance of winning the poll.
Mutharika, the 79-year-old incumbent, is looking for a second and final five-year term in office.
He leads the governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which was founded by his elder brother, late President Bingu wa Mutharika, in 2004.
A former law professor, Mutharika, who came to power in 2014, is credited with improving the country’s infrastructure and lowering inflation, which has fallen from 23 percent to below 9 percent.
His rivals have accused him of corruption and of favouring rural regions where his support is strongest. He denies the accusations.
Mutharika picked Atupele Muluzi, of the United Democratic Front (UDF), as his running mate. The 41-year-old is the son of former President Bakili Muluzi, who ruled Malawi from 1994 to 1999.
If the DPP and the UDF perform in the election rerun as they did last year, according to the results announced by the commission, they would gather a little more than 43 percent.
The 65-year-old runner-up in last year’s annulled election had also finished second in the 2014 polls. His party, the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), ruled the country since independence from Britain in 1964 until 1994, mostly under a one-party system.
In a bid to maximise his chances of unseating the incumbent, Chakwera has joined forces with Chilima, Mutharika’s former vice president who quit the DPP in 2018 to form the United Transformation Movement (UTM) and run for the presidency.
Once combined, their official 2019 vote tallies surge to almost 56 percent, well above the threshold that guarantees an outright win. A survey this week by the Zomba-based Institute of Public Opinion and Research found that 51 percent of the electorate would vote for Chakwera/Chilima ticket.
Their Tonse Alliance has rallied around the two main issues of job creation and universal agricultural subsidies, as well as rooting out corruption. Last year, Transparency International ranked Malawi 123rd out of 180 countries in its annual corruption perception index.
Kuwani, of the Mbakuwani Movement for Development (MMD), is the other candidate on the voting register. The little-known candidate has accused Mutharika of political cronyism, which he promises to end if elected. His party won 0.4 percent of the votes in last year’s poll.