By Ayamba Kandodo:
It is Tuesday, November 10 2020, at Makhwira South Ward in Chikwawa East Constituency. The clock is ticking towards 7am and voters are choosing their ward councillor in 10 polling centres.
Eligible voters are trickling down to the centres in large numbers to exercise their voting right. About 20,779 people who were registered in the ward are expected to cast their ballots.
They want to elect someone to represent them at the council to fill the position of Manick Ganeti, their previous councillor.
Ganeti was accidently shot dead by the police while solving compensation wrangles that erupted between community members and Mota- Engil, a company that was constructing a road in the area.
Now, people in his ward are eager to close the ‘vacant’ chapter that his death created.
However, as time rolls towards 10am, it is becoming clear that more people will stay away from exercising their right to elect their ward councillor.
The once snaking lines are subduing. For close to 20 minutes, some centres are without any voter. At noon, it is worse. Polling staff just laze about for up to 30 minutes without attending to any voter.
During our visit to Mitondo, Mpama, Savala, Mchacha and Oleole polling centres, which had each registered 3,277, 3,369, 2,116, 2,837 and 2,049 voters, respectively, at 4pm, we discovered that each had less than 800 voters who had cast their ballot.
When all the vote counting is done, it becomes apparent that only 7,084 out 20,779 potential voters exercised their constitutional right.
Presiding officer at Mitondo Polling Centre, Joseph Banda, who is a primary school teacher and has stayed in the area for over six years, suspects that people are losing trust in duty-bearers.
“People here are farmers. They would rather spend their time on something which can benefit them at the end,” he said.
Another presiding officer, Hopeson Mkwanda, says generally there is lack of civic education among the people on the merits of voting.
The presiding officers’ explanations shock stakeholders who were in the ward monitoring the polls.
“We are worried with the situation,” says National Initiative for Civic Education (Nice) Public Trust Southern Region Civic Education Officer, Christopher Naphiyo.
“The low turnout of voters is a serious problem that manifests during by-elections,” Naphiyo states.
He then challenges the politicians to draw a lesson from the situation.
“To us, it is a lesson learnt. Through these by-elections, we have learnt that there is more work to do to convince people to vote.
“This election has also identified knowledge gaps among some voters, especially the elderly. We saw the elderly struggling to vote” Naphiyo says.
Despite seeing the by-election in Chikwawa as generally peaceful, Malawi Electoral Commission Commissioner, Steven Duwa, is worried with the lukewarm patronage by voters.
“We anticipated that the election would be characterised by huge voter turnout but this was not the case. We can’t say there was no civic and voter mobilisation. Before this election, we rolled out civic and voter mobilisation campaigns,” Duwa says.
Well, only voters can turn the situation around.