Except the 1994 General Elections, all the successive elections in Malawi have been preceded by political and electoral violence, with the governing parties being the primary perpetrators of violence assisted by government security agencies.
Electoral violence has been a noticeable feature of elections in Malawi although an aggregate number of cases reported in the media has been decreasing from one general election to another, which could mean that the spirit of political tolerance is gaining root.
Experts define electoral violence as a subtype of political violence but distinguished by its timing such as close to elections and its goals which usually are to impact elections; either by changing outcomes or to disrupt the elections themselves.
It can be physical violence, but can also include threats and intimidation. Electoral violence can be aimed against people such as candidates, voters, electoral officials or objects such as ballots or electoral facilities.
Violence is employed to achieve a political objective. In an electoral context, this objective would be a capture of the electoral process through the elimination of political rivals, suppression of voter turnout, coercion of voters, or intimidation of election officials.
Electoral violence can occur during any phase of the election; from voter registration, political campaigning and election day to the announcement and implementation of outcomes.
The motives for violence could include skewing the playing field, limiting political space, preventing candidates from running, weakening the opposition, or a desire to retain power and stay in office.
Mangochi, Karonga and Zomba are some of the districts which have been epicentres of political and electoral violence, with the old guard politicians being accused of using loafing youngsters to perpetrate violence against their opponents.
Although studies of the effect of electoral violence on electoral participation have been limited, it is obvious that violence undermines the credibility, quality and inclusiveness of elections; and as a result, the opposition struggles to muster support, campaign or compete fairly.
Studies of electoral violence by United Nations Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial Violence, Philip Alto, Professors Scott Straus and Charlie Taylor of the University of Wisconsin, and Jeff Fischer, formerly with the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, found that an average of one in five elections experiences some form of violence.
And, in rare instances, the violence experienced is orchestrated scale that it is considered a crime or that required to go through the formal criminal justice mechanisms.
The common denominator that these cases present is that of impunity for these crimes.
“As a result, penalties for orchestrating such violence are absent or minimized. Without effective mechanisms to punish the leadership of the violence, the incentives to commit such crimes on such scales are not diminished,” observed the studies.
Following the annulled May 2019 presidential election, Malawi experienced a number of phenomena on the socio-political phenomena ahead of the fresh presidential election slated for June 23, 2020.
And in the build up to the Fresh President Election, the country was characterised by political intolerance, violence, elements or sentiments of ethnic and tribal divisions as well as social discord.
However, just like it is the case with many other countries, the Electoral Legal Framework in Malawi doesn’t recognize electoral and political violence as a criminal offence.
This has made prosecution of politically-motivated and/or electoral-related violence almost impossible.
According to Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) National Governance Programmes Coordinator, George Chiusiwa, the electoral legal framework does not give the Malawi Electoral Commission (Mec) powers to handle political and electoral-related violence but to refer them to the Police who usually face challenges to enforce the law where the perpetrator belongs to the ruling party.
Chiusiwa said it is against this background that with funding from Open Society Imitative for Southern Africa (OSISA), CCJP, as a governance, advocacy and human rights arm of the Episcopal Conference of Malawi (ECM), initiated a project to promote political tolerance and enhance social cohesion and ensure a free, fair, peaceful and credible fresh presidential election.
The project was being implemented in Karonga, Lilongwe, Mangochi and Zomba districts to safeguard the fresh presidential election through promotion of social cohesion and peace building.
Largely, the project engaged and raised awareness among citizens on the need to observe peace and tolerance before, during and after fresh presidential elections.
It also increased community dialogue and debate between duty bearers and citizens on maintenance of peace, political tolerance and social cohesion.
“CCJP believes that after successfully holding a relatively free, fair, peaceful and credible Fresh Presidential Election in June 2020, electoral stakeholders and the citizenry at large should now be more concerned about the state of peace and social cohesion. This is in the wake of dislocation of the political and socio-cultural fabric manifested in such phenomena as political or electoral violence, politics of mudslinging, hate speech, political exclusion, and politicization of development, youth radicalization and political extremism in the young,” Chiusiwa emphasized.
He further said the country’s electoral legal framework has limitations and inadequacies to address electoral and political violence while ensuring that electoral outcomes are also affected by the determinations on the cases.
He noted that delays by the Malawi Police Service to investigate cases of electoral and political violence have potentially denied certain political actors like political parties, candidates and voters effective electoral justice.
“Cases of electoral violence, which would have a bearing on electoral outcomes, have systematically been delayed to be concluded. The popular debate on electoral reforms should have considered this aspect, too,” he added.
However, Malawi has recently registered a significant decline in the inter-party electoral conflict and violence from one general election until 2014, which suggests an entrenchment of the spirit political tolerance.
Mangochi Police Station Officer-in-Charge, Francis Chisoti said there is need to review the Electoral Law to incorporate penalties for perpetrators of violence prior, during and after the elections.
“Supremacy felt by the ruling parties over others leaves a lot to be desired, political tolerance is just by words, but not fully practiced. Booking for the venue to be directed to the Multiparty Liaison Committee, not the DC as those in power tend to come at the eleventh hour to book for their meeting at the same venue,” he explained.
“Misguided youth and cash handouts, need for Ministry of Youth and Sports to play a very big part in discouraging political violence as they are main players in the violent acts,” he added.
Mangochi District Commissioner (DC) Raphael Piringu thinks the lasting solution to the problem lies in freeing the civil service and state security agencies from the yoke of politicians and letting them be at the service of ordinary citizens.
Piringu lamented that while it is a universal principle that all civil servants must adhere to political neutrality, the governing parties have always demanded their loyalty.
“I am one of the DCs who have rejected such demands and have, in the process, ended up becoming enemies of the governing parties. My thinking is that my allegiance should be to the government and the citizens above everything else,” he said.