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By-elections post-mortem: lessons for 2025

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SPOKE AGAINST VIOLENCE—Village Head Lughali in Karonga

By Wanangwa Tembo, contributor:

The Malawi Electoral Commission (Mec) on Tuesday last week conducted local government by-elections in three wards in Chitipa, Karonga and Balaka districts in respect to the Local Government Elections Act which calls for filling of vacancies created by incumbents so that the people continue to have representation in the councils.

The elections were held in Shire Ward in Balaka district, 10 months after the death of Councillor Patrick Botomani of the United Democratic Front (UDF) on 24 October last year.

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The party reclaimed its seat. The others were held in Wenya and Lupembe wards in Chitipa and Karonga respectively and were both won by Malawi Congress Party (MCP).

Declaring the results at Katoto in Mzuzu, Mec chairperson Chifundo Kachale said the electoral body was satisfied that the election was conducted in an environment “where the electorate were free to elect candidates of their choice without fear and intimidation.”

“We are also confident that the results…reflect the democratic will of the voters. The commission, therefore, declares this election as a credible one that has met legal requirements and international best practices generally in as far as free and fair elections are concerned,” Kachale said.

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While the election was credible and valid in the legal sense, there were several democratisation concerns that dented the otherwise peaceful process.

Voter turnout

Just like in the so many by-elections conducted in the past, voter turnout last week was pitiably low, at 32 percent on average.

According to Mec, there was a combined total of 37,844 voters in all the three wards of which only 12,284 turned out for polling.

National Initiative for Civic Education (Nice) Public Trust, which largely worked hand in hand with Mec in voter civic education and mobilisation, says though this is worrying, it is not surprised with the low turnout “because this has been the trend of voter turnout in by-elections in the country.”

Nice acting Executive Director, Gray Kalindekafe, says it is worrying that despite the huge investment that is made in conducting elections, some quarters still do not take the polls seriously.

“In the current arrangement, a ward is half a constituency, which means the pattern of results in the ward is a clear signal of what would be the case at constituency level. What this means is that local by-elections must be equally taken seriously,” Kalindekafe says.

Historically, participation of voters in by-elections in the country has always been low even at constituency level.

For instance, a random sampling of 20 parliamentary by-elections results indicates that the average turnout is at 48 percent with the highest being 80.5 percent for Karonga Central in December 2020 and the lowest being 18.06 percent in Lilongwe City South East in October 2017.

For local government by-elections, the picture is worse.

For example, out of nine sampled local government by-elections, the average turnout is 25.6 with the highest being 38.7 percent for Lalanje Ward in Nsanje in June 2021 and the lowest being 17.1 percent in Ntope Ward in Mchinji in December 2015.

In last week’s polls, Wenya and Lupembe wards registered 49.9 percent and 49.5 percent respectively, while Shire Ward saw a 23.3 percent turnout.

“On our part, we did the best we could. We conducted political debates in all the concerned wards, first to create a platform for the electorate to make informed decisions in the choice of candidates and second, to raise the hype for the polls.

“We also carried out mobilisation activities using various platforms such as loud hailing and announcements in gatherings such as churches. However, the turnout has still been on the lower side. This is a big issue that needs to be looked into by all stakeholders,” Kalindekafe says.

Likewise, most civil society institutions did not monitor the elections, adding to the questions of whether stakeholders take by-elections seriously.

Apart from political parties, only Nice placed both stationed and roving monitors on poling day.

No show for women

At a time the world is pushing for more space for women participation in politics, the recent by-elections were an all-men’s affair.

There was no female candidate out of the 15 contestants that participated in the poll, a development Nice describes as worrying.

Mec also expressed its worry about lack of women participation at that level.

The electoral body’s chairperson said in a statement that the lack of interest from women and people with disabilities in the polls has come at a time the commission has been steadfast in encouraging the special interest groups to stand in elections by offering a discount on nomination fees.

“The absence of women candidates triggers thoughts that maybe the nomination fees incentive comes late in the process when the targeted population has already been eliminated by the system.

“Again, the commission wishes to emphasise the need for parties to put in place measures to encourage women, the youth and people with disabilities to contest in elections,” Kachale said.

“During these by-elections, there was absence of the lobby and advocacy groups for women representation. It should also be borne in mind by them that by-elections are opportunities to alter the statistics for the better,” Kachale added.

On his part, Kalindekafe, whose institution is also a member of the Electoral Reforms Task Force, calls for enactment of current electoral laws by, among other things, introducing gender quotas to increase women’s representation in both councils and Parliament.

“There are many factors that pull women back from participating in elections as candidates. We are talking about the long tradition of patriarchy and economic hardships. We will continue to lobby for introduction of gender quotas. This has worked in some countries such as Uganda.

“Additionally, we implore political parties to create more space for women within their party structures. Women participation should start at that level. That is when the women can gather courage to contest as candidates,” he says.

At least seven political parties participated in the by-elections – all fielding male candidates.

Campaign handouts

Lupembe Ward covers an area that is under Paramount Kyungu and is part of Karonga Central Constituency, a traditionally perceived hotspot for electoral violence.

Almost all previous elections in the area have been muddied by violent clashes between supporters of rival political candidates.

However, peace unprecedentedly reigned in last week’s by-elections, attracting the attention of stakeholders, including Mec itself.

“The commission wishes to commend the people in the by-election areas for maintaining law, order, peace and calm during the entire period,” Kachale said when declaring the results.

In its preliminary By-Elections Observation Report, Nice Board also acknowledges that candidates championed a peaceful campaign.

“Nice conducted debates for candidates…to intensify collaboration amongst the aspirants to avoid fights, held meetings with the Political Party Liaison Committee to further enhance coordination. The elections were generally peaceful and could largely be pronounced as free and fair,” the report says.

During the debates in Karonga, political and traditional leaders called for a peaceful campaign, with party leaders saying they were ready to disqualify their candidates if they incited violence.

So far, only one person was arrested for allegedly issuing handouts. The Political Parties Act criminalises issuing of handouts as a campaign tool.

Principally, the issuing of handouts is also regarded as one of the factors hindering women participation in politics as they may not have the resources to give as handouts.

In about three years, Malawians will go to polls to elect a President, Members of Parliament and Ward Councillors.

While the recent by-elections could be seen as a dot in a distance, it nevertheless offers serious democratic lessons on women participation, voter apathy and observation of peace as the country readies itself for the general elections.

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