Understanding the elections in Malawi

Malawi went to the polls today to elect a new president in the country’s fifth election since the government introduced multiparty politics in 1994. Recent corruption scandals, persistent economic woes and a tarnished international reputation means the stakes are higher than normal for this election, as Malawians seek a way to get back on track both domestically and with international donors.

Not too long ago, Malawi was the Southern Africa darling for international donors. However growing corruption and a severe crackdown on media and civil society following pro-reform street protests by former President Bingu wa Mutharika resulted in most donors cutting off all but emergency aid. Following Mutharika’s unexpected death in 2012, the country appeared on the verge of political crisis over the issue of succession but ultimately power passed relatively smoothly to then-Vice President Joyce Banda. In taking power, Banda inherited a severely struggling economy and tense political atmosphere under which she was tasked with undertaking reforms. Despite early optimism over her administration due to some high profile acts – selling the presidential jet for tax revenue and launching a strong diplomatic campaign to improve relations with Western donors and neighboring African countries – her term has also been marked with corruption scandals and withering public confidence, not just in her ability to rule but in the government as a whole.

Trouble began in September 2013 when a government clerk was found with $300,000 in the trunk of his car in the capital Lilongwe. That shocking revelation proved to be mere foreshadowing for what has now become the largest financial scandal ever to hit the country. A week later Paul Mphwiyo, Malawi’s Budget Director and the man Banda put in charge of rooting out corruption in the public sector, was shot three times outside his home in an apparent assassination attempt. Although he survived the attack, the incident shocked Malawians who are not used to such high political drama. Further investigations revealed a multi-million dollar embezzling scandal now known as “cash gate”. Although the practice of civil servants and bureaucrats siphoning off large sums of money from public funds originated under Mutharika’s administration, it is Banda who is being forced to deal with the fallout as she admitted she has no idea where all the money went. Despite two senior ministers being fired and dozens of lower-level bureaucrats being arrested in connection to the scandal, the flow of aid from Western countries and international institutions, just recently reinstated, has once again stopped, leaving the country in budgetary limbo.

It is this scandal and the resulting economic turmoil that is hanging over Banda’s candidacy in this election but she is not alone. Two other frontrunners in the election, Peter Mutharika – the brother of former-president Mutharika – and Atupele Muluzi – son of another former-president, Bakili Muluzi – are finding their family connections to be a vulnerability as they too are dogged by allegations of corruption. Although the economy has rebounded to an estimated 6.1% annual growth rate under Banda, frustration with corruption and the feeling that the problem is too pervasive for any of the current candidates to adequately handle has left the electorate less than confident about the future and Malawi extremely tense in the lead up to today’s tripartite polls.

Recent opinion polls by the independent research group Afrobarometer highlight these feelings as well as the consequences of recent events. Conducted a little more than a month before the election, 78% of Malawians believe the country is going in the wrong direction, up from 51% in 2012. As a result, strong support for elections is also up to 65% from 55% in 2012. However when faced with the unprecedented choice of 12 candidates for president this year, the poll results were so split as to make the outcome too close to call. Kim Yi Dionne and Boniface Dulani, academics writing for the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, conducted their own analysis of the election’s likely outcome and came to similar conclusions as Afrobarometer. Their geographical analysis demonstrates the political divisions within the country, as each region is expected to back a different political party, leading to an anticipated four-way split of the overall vote.

The high stakes of this election make for a tense atmosphere throughout the country as people vote. Despite a few isolated incidents of violence before the election and warnings from some that the lack of transparency could fuel tensions, international observers largely expected voting to be peaceful. However voting delays and accusations of irregularities have already seen violence and protests flare up in some spots around the country as soldiers deployed to the southern commercial city of Blantyre to quell any further unrest.

Further violence is not anticipated as all sides call for calm even in the face of mounting frustrations. Malawi has weathered numerous political storms in the past few years and there is little reason to expect that it will not be able to weather these tensions as well. As polling stations close, now comes the moment when the entire country has no other option than to sit and wait, hoping whoever is voted into office can bring about much needed reform to put the nation back on track and regain the confidence of the people.