26 May 2014

Malawi and South Africa - a Tale of Two Elections


As President Jacob Zuma was being inaugurated as South Africa's president for a second and final term, his Malawian counterpart, President Joyce Banda was annulling the just held elections. She cited section 82 (2) of the constitution that provides that the president shall provide executive leadership in the interests of national unity and ordered fresh elections in the next 90 days.

She was unlikely to be among the 27 heads of state and government who were expected to attend the ostentatious occasion at the Union buildings in Pretoria. This not because of president Zuma's remarks last year that Johannesburg roads were a serious undertaking and could not be compared with some back road in Malawi. She has been fighting for her political life as it becomes increasingly likely that she will be nudged out of State House by Peter Mutharika of the hitherto opposition Democratic People's Party (DPP) in the just concluded elections.

South Africans and Malawians went to the polls on the 7th and 20th of May respectively. Some 16 million voters cast their votes in South Africa out of some 25 million registered voters. Just over 7 million Malawians registered to vote and it looks like 70% did turn up. In both countries it is the fifth election since the end of Apartheid in South Africa and the return to plural politics in Malawi. At 52 million, South Africa's population is more than three times that of Malawi's 16 million.

Both incumbent presidents went into elections mired in corruption scandals. In the case of President Banda her reputation was dented by a scandal that saw government officials and politicians siphoning millions of taxpayer dollars through a porous government payment system that became known as Cashgate. No stranger to scandal, President Zuma was mired in controversial upgrades to his private residence that cost South African taxpayers millions of dollars.

South Africa is ranked 122 out of 187 countries and territories on the Human Index while Malawi comes a distant 170. Comparing the electoral processes in the two countries may seem a waste of time. Yet both countries aspire to shared values and are seeking closer integration within the frameworks of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU). In any case the 16 million that are inhabitants of Malawi deserve to be governed as fairly and justly as anyone else in the world.

A hallmark of a democratic election is that the process is predictable while the outcome is not. Save for the uncertainty about whether Pansy Tlakula, chair of South Africa's Electoral Commission, would preside over the electoral process or she would step down on account of impropriety on her part, the process has always been predictable.

The same cannot be said about the process in Malawi. Speculation was rife in the run-up to election day that polling might have to be postponed because of lack of preparedness of the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC). The voter register was being printed a day before elections. It also emerged that insufficient ballot papers had been printed. A hasty decision was taken to locally print more ballot papers that had been printed in South Africa. Only about 25% of polling stations had managed to open by 9 am when polling was supposed to start at 6 am.

It soon became clear that most polling stations did not have adequate materials such as indelible ink, the voter register, ballot papers, ballot boxes and seals, and pens. Some folks who had queued from as early as 4 am were only able to vote at 2 pm. Polling had to be halted in some polling stations due to rioting by impatient voters. Polling had to be extended beyond the initial 6 pm deadline and in some polling centres by an extra two days. The electoral outcome was pretty much predictable in the case of South Africa due to the dominance of the African National Congress. In Malawi the outcome was too close to call between the four top contenders.

In the morning after South Africans quickly shifted attention to how the new government would address the debilitating economic situation. In Malawi as polls closed and vote counting started, Malawians were frantically debating whether the losing contenders would concede defeat and accept the outcome. Even before announcement of official results, President Joyce Banda has alleged massive vote rigging and fraud and demanded an audit of the results. She is yet to substantiate her claim.

It is not the first time an incumbent has alleged electoral malfeasance. In 2008 Zimbabwe's ZANU PF made similar allegations regarding elections in that year. It is not clear at this stage what course of action she and others who might lose are likely to take. A lot will also depend on the parliamentary showing of each of top four parties. Voting appears to have once again trekked regional loyalties.

Domestic civil society organizations mounted a serious and credible observation operation through the Election Situation Room that was supported by OSISA in collaboration with Hivos. The Situation Room is providing civil society actors a viable platform to engage with key stakeholders such as the Electoral Commission, political parties and development partners.

Ideally post-election debate should really be a robust critique about the quality and competencies of elected representatives and leaders, it appears that in places like Malawi we still have to accept and understand that it is possible to lose an election. This may be difficult if elections continue to be a zero sum game.

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