By Kumbukani Kuntiya:
The High Court, sitting as a Constitutional Court of five judges on February 3 made what has come to be called a landmark ruling. It provided several consequential directions, among them being to hold fresh elections within 150 days.
Further, the court made a determination that the majority to be attained by a candidate to the office of president should be 50 percent plus 1 of the total valid votes cast during the presidential election as per Section 80 (2) of the Malawi Constitution.
This is opposed to the First- Past-the-Post (FPP) system which considers a candidate who gets the most votes duly elected.
Looking back at the six presidential elections under multiparty dispensation, including the nullified 2019 elections, only Bakili Muluzi got 52 percent in 1999 and Bingu wa Mutharika 66 percent ten years later.
The 50%+1 system prevents a candidate from winning a seat with less than 50 percent of the vote but by an ‘absolute majority’ of the vote i.e. 50 percent of the vote plus one more vote as opposed to a simple majority in FPP.
Few years ago, it was introduced in Zambia and is used in over 80 countries worldwide including Kenya and Nigeria. The system is often used in presidential elections as opposed to parliamentary or local government elections. It is touted to be relatively easy for the voter to understand.
Now what happens if the fresh elections will not produce an outright winner as was the case in 2004 and 2014 elections which produced the lowest in the history of Malawi at 36 percent respectively?
To avoid such a scenario, countries with majority electoral systems have adopted one of two solutions being a second-round election or the alternative vote. An easier option for Malawi would be the second round of elections also called a run-off.
What this entails is that when none of the candidates will get more than 50 percent to be declared a winner during the fresh elections, the Malawi Electoral Commission (Mec) will have to organise a run-off involving the top two candidates within days or weeks.
As you might have noted, it is for this reason that most of the parties are now preaching about alliances as a safety net to get the required 50%+1 votes and avoid the ‘penalty shootout’ in the run-off.
In Malawi’s context, Two Round System (TRS) makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for Democratic Progressive Party, Malawi Congress Party, UTM or People’s Party alone to win the presidency during the fresh elections within the first round.
We all know Malawi is fragmented where political parties have their support bases defined by family, tribe or region.
Having considered the above, TRS is like a rose flower. Despite the beauty, it is not without thorns. Let us look at the disadvantages first.
Within its inherent nature of having a provision for a second round of voting, it may bring in logistical nightmares on the part of the Electoral Commission and other stakeholders including donors to plan and budget for such an eventuality whose outcome could either be a single birth or twins.
Probably for the fear of the unknown, though yet to be justified substantively, Mec is appealing for an extra 110 days to conduct the fresh elections.
Conducting a run-off after the first is like holding a by-election in Malawi. As evidenced from the recent by-elections, it has shown that voter turn-out is a big issue and the same might apply in TRS.
Further to this, it has to be appreciated that adoption of TRS will increase elections budget but it has to be appreciated that indeed democracy does not come cheap as noted by the Constitutional Court ruling.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Mec is considering a budget in excess of K40 billion just like the 2019 total budget.
On a positive note, the Constitutional Court ruling could be said to have come at the right time when Malawians were anticipating a rerun on the electoral reforms campaign after the failed attempt in 2018.
As noted by several analysts, the main thing that people are looking for in the change of the electoral system is inclusive politics and governance. Further to this, Ace Project and other proponents of majority systems, indicate that TRS tends to produce strong and stable governments – a thing Malawi has missed for several decades.
If the electoral reforms go through and 50%+1 is adopted, Malawians for the first time are likely to witness serious quests for alliances, political leaders getting out from their comfort zones and reaching out to voters from their non-traditional bases with a view to win during the first round or to qualify for the run-off.
Such a quest for votes will not merely stop on the voting day but such a momentum will continue. It is for this reason that following the fresh elections, Malawi will have transformed its politics from one of exclusion as it is to one of inclusion.
As one way of being seen to be accommodative, such aspects like rotational presidency might be considered. In a few election cycles, the country might see a president from the least populous northern region occupying State House.
In conclusion, adoption of 50%+1 is not a solution in itself for the current electoral challenges. Malawi is long overdue to take its dosage of electoral reforms undertaken in a sober environment for the sake of the next generation.
The author is an elections analyst and a former diplomat.