By Dyson Mthawanji:
The much awaited 2019 tripartite elections (TPE) are finally here. Today, Malawians are casting their vote in what is expected to be a tightly contested poll. All ears will soon be on Malawi Electoral Commission (Mec) to hear the name of the victorious presidential candidate.
These will be the second TPE as Malawi held the first in May 2014, which saw Peter Mutharika of then opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) ascending to power, kicking out the first female president Joyce Banda of People’s Party (PP). The 2014 TPE have a lot of lessons which can help in the 2019 TPE and all future elections.
Civic and voter education
A number of key actors played commendable roles in civic and voter education during the 2014 elections. The most prominent were civil society organisations (CSOs) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), particularly the faith based ones like Public Affairs Committee (Pac), the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace and Church and Society programmes of Livingstonia, Nkhoma and Blantyre CCAP Synods.
Mec and National Initiative for Civic Education (Nice) public Trust led the civic and voter education campaign as usual, by virtue of being traditional service providers.
As was the case in the previous elections, political parties played a key role in mobilising prospective voters in 2014. Almost all political parties emphasised the fact that it was the first time Malawi was holding elections with three components, and the parties tried to make sure that voters understood how to go about voting.
For example, most political parties recommended that voters should vote for a presidential candidate, a member of Parliament, and ward councillor from the same party.
However, the outstanding feature of civic and voter education in relation to the stand taken by the political parties, which greatly influenced voter participation in 2014, was that the elections were highly competitive.
Noel Mbowela, a political analyst, and Ollen Mwalubunju who is executive director at Nice, described the 2014 tripartite elections as the mother of all elections in Malawi.
“The calibre and popularity of the main presidential contenders was unprecedented, as was the amount of resources spent by some political parties during election campaigns. The presidential candidates Joyce Banda, Atupele Muluzi, Dr Lazarus Chakwera and Professor Peter Mutharika were all impressive in their right,” said Mbowela and Mwalubunju in their write-up which looked back at the 2014 tripartite elections.
In terms of competitiveness during the campaign period, then governing PP mounted one of the most expensive campaigns in the country’s electoral history, with massive handouts in the form of maize, cows, T-shirts, pieces of cloth (zitenje), food items, drinks, cash, motorbikes, construction equipment, blankets and assorted party paraphernalia.
Unfortunately, PP lost elections to DPP. Looking at the 2019 tripartite election, the momentum has been greater than it was in 2014. All the major four political parties namely DPP, Malawi Congress Party, UTM and United Democratic Front have invested heavily in their political campaign.
The major difference between 2014 and 2019 elections is that on the latter, political parties are spending hugely part of their budgeted money on informing the prospective voters about their manifestos.
That is why there are a lot of visibility and ‘marketing-related activities in these political parties including recording of both audio and video songs. There are rare cases of distributing free items. Maybe political parties have learnt a lesson from PP’s distribution of items to prospective voters.
Looking back to Malawi’s electoral history, the country does not have a history of post-electoral violence on a large scale, but electoral outcomes of two elections in 1999 and 2004 were contested in court on grounds of irregularities and flaws in the management of the electoral process while the conduct and outcome of the 2014 elections had drawn wide criticism and concern from contenders as well as key stakeholders.
Role of media
Sections 34, 35 and 36 of the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi guarantee freedom of association, opinion, expression and the press. Unlike in 2009 presidential and parliamentary elections, freedom of expression and of the press were respected throughout the campaign period in 2014.
The media covered the elections without restrictions of movement or access to information, in contrast with the repression that characterised the 2009 elections.
Writing in a book titled The Malawi 2014 Tripartite Elections: Is Democracy Maturing?, Baldwin Chiyamwaka attributed this success to political will at that time.
“The improved media freedom in 2014 was a great step forward that can be attributed to political will and the commitment of the Malawi Electoral Commission. This is in view of the fact that although press freedom is guaranteed in Malawi’s Republican Constitution, freedom of association and opinion, expression and press are not included in the list of rights which may not be derogated from,” said Chiyamwaka.
Mec and Media Council of Malawi jointly adopted the self-regulatory Media Code of Conduct for media reporting of the 2014 elections.
By voluntary agreement, media houses were obliged to ensure balanced and impartial reporting, which journalists generally adhered to throughout the election period.
These self-regulating guidelines were agreed upon by senior delegates representing all of the country’s main media houses – in radio, television and print.
The Ministry of Gender together with NGO Gender Coordination Network (NGO-GCN) and with support from United Nations Development Programme, implemented an assistance programme for female candidates under the auspices of the 50-50 campaign.
This programme included capacity building and financial assistance to cover part of campaign expenses. Female aspiring parliamentarians were given K200,000 while female local council candidates were given half the amount.
In the same vein, Mec reduced nomination fees for female parliamentary and local council candidates by 25 percent. Furthermore, a number of radio and television stations ran special programmes aimed at spreading women empowerment messages, increasing women’s participation in voting and improving female candidates’ chances of success in the 2014 elections.
“One of the most interesting gender centred civic and voter education innovations was the ruling party’s slogan ‘Kukhala mzimayi sichifukwa’,” said Mbowela and Mwalubunju.
However, regardless of all these efforts, the country failed to achieve the 50-50 dream. The increased female participation in the electoral process did not translate into better performance among female candidates.
In 2014 the number of female parliamentarians fell by five percent from 42 to 32 out of the 193 legislators. There had been a total of 261 female candidates; so this represents a low success rate of 16 percent, which was far below the targeted 50 percent.
In the Local Government elections, only 56 women out of 419 female contestants were elected, representing a 13 percent success rate, according to European Union Election Observer Report of 2014.
Although a large number of women registered to vote, the final results showed that the number of women voters was not sufficient to ensure the election of female presidential candidates Joyce Banda and Helen Singh.
More than half of the 5.2 million voters were women and if they had massively voted for fellow women Banda and Singh, the two would have certainly performed much better than they did, and Banda would have amassed close to 1.5 million votes.
However, Banda got just about 1 million votes and Singh less than 10,000. These two came third and tenth, respectively, in the 12–strong presidential race.
The 2014 elections surprised gender activists because, since 1994, women’s representation in Parliament had increased in each election, yet the figure went down for the first time in 2014. This was not only when the 50-50 campaign was probably at its peak but, most importantly, when Malawi had produced the first female vice-president, who had later become president.
Today, voters have chance to reverse this problem by voting for more women. There is no female presidential candidate in today’s presidential race. Therefore, Malawians should vote for more female MPs and councillors to achieve 50-50 representation
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