Malawi’s 2014 Elections: An Assessment

Malawi’s 2014 Elections: An Assessment

Early indications suggested that Malawi’s elections in May 2014 would bring challenges, drama, and intrigue unprecedented in the country’s political history. At that time, Malawi saw its first tripartite elections, in which voters were expected to choose ward councilors, members of parliament, and the president. The contest for president attracted twelve candidates—a record number—and the elections were to be managed by a commission that had received a very positive rating.

This analysis is based on my firsthand observation of the elections as a manager of the Centre for Multiparty Democracy (CMD) in Malawi, a platform for dialogue among Malawi’s political parties. It will focus on the electoral commission, election administration, and management processes and discuss the run-up to the elections, as well as the collation and announcement of results.

The electoral commission, election administration, and management

When President Joyce Banda assumed power after the death of former President Bingu wa Mutharika, she received praise for her early decision to appoint the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC). Section 4 (1) of the Electoral Commission Act mandates the president to appoint commission members in consultation with leaders of the political parties represented in the National Assembly. Opposition parties had previously claimed President Mutharika of violating the law by not consulting them when he appointed the commission that managed the 2009 elections.1 They believed the president’s appointees would only serve the interests of his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and took their case to court.2 The High Court ruled in favor of Mutharika, and the matter was eventually discontinued at the Supreme Court.

In contrast, when Banda took over, she did what most political parties expected: she asked the parties in parliament for nominees. In turn, she appointed the people that the parties had nominated, resulting in an electoral commission representative of Malawi’s political parties. In at least three cases—Nancy Tembo of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), Stanley Biliati of the Malavi People’s Party (MPP), and Dr. Wellington Nakanga of the United Democratic Front (UDF)—party nominees were active politicians just before being appointed. While many applauded this inclusiveness, the effectiveness of such a partisan commission was not put to the test until the May 2014 elections.

Although the MEC is classified as “independent,”3 this independence is open to question; in practice, the commission is certainly not free of partisan politics. When the results of the 2014 elections started trickling in, the parties challenged the MEC’s credibility on the basis of many observed electoral irregularities. The parties’ differences were reflected in the varying reactions of the commissioners, with over half threatening to refuse to endorse the results without a recount—a threat that was only prevented from being carried out by judicial intervention after the court ruled that results have to be released before the expiry of the statutory eight day period. Despite the praise for its inclusiveness, some pointed to the shortcomings of the current MEC, among them its inherently limited ability to make decisions above the partisan interests of the parties represented on it. As will be argued later, this aspect of the electoral commission will require some rethinking.

Another area that needs rethinking is the commissioners’ four-year tenure of office, with the possibility of reappointment for another four-year term. As the current commission was appointed in May 2012 (and its chair appointed in October 2012), the commissioners had less than eighteen months—a relatively short time—to prepare for Malawi’s first tripartite elections. This situation must be addressed if electoral planning and administration are to reflect continuity, institutional memory, and efficiency.

A third area in need of close attention and reform is election financing and related budgetary matters. The budget for the May 2014 elections was pegged at 18.4 billion Malawi Kwacha (about US$40 million), of which the government of Malawi committed to paying 60 percent, while development partners contributed to the remaining 40 percent, and whose use was limited to the procurement of selected sensitive materials, such as ballot papers. Records show most of this funding was spent in the election year, exerting enormous pressure on the national public purse and resulting in intermittent financing of some critical activities. The hiccups in funding also encouraged dependence on international development partners.

In general, a shift is needed from short-term planning that treats elections as an event to a long-term perspective that recognizes them as continuous political processes that are important to national stability and development. The country must ensure elections are strategically financed by government by reforming the system and setting aside special funds in the annual national budget over a five-year period to cover electoral costs.

The run-up to the Malawi elections

Immediately after assuming office, the MEC decided to resuscitate the National Elections Consultative Forum (NECOF), a loose structure for bringing together all electoral stakeholders in the country, including political parties, to engage with the commission. To engage exclusively with political parties, the MEC used another forum under the Centre for Multiparty Democracy.

As early as December 2012, the MEC had announced its decision to adopt the biometric system of data capture for voter registration for the 2014 tripartite elections. The change was made to address problems discovered in 2008, when the optical mark recognition (OMR) voter registration system was used. These included the loss of completed paper forms during transportation to centralized scanning facilities and mistakes made in completing the primary source documents that caused scanning errors, resulting in errors in the final register. (Notably, Malawi and Zimbabwe are the only countries in the subregion that do not conduct continuous voter registration.) Despite these justifications cited by the MEC for the switch to the biometric data capture system, stakeholders—including political parties—had reservations, particularly because of the limited time available in which to introduce the new system. The European Union (EU), one of the major cooperating partners, had its reservations as well.4 In the end, the idea was shelved.

Partly because the OMR system was retained, almost all the challenges of the 2008 exercise in voter registration were replicated in 2014. The full extent of the problems in the more recent instance became clear when the commission was forced to abandon the voter verification process a couple of days after it was launched. Even relaunching it did not address the many cases of people’s names missing from the register, the reports of transposed details, the numerous cases of multiple registration, and the unexplained transfers of large numbers of people from one constituency to another (engineered by some unscrupulous candidates trying to boost their chances of winning). The effect of using a manual labor–intensive registration system and aborting the verification process was to shorten the decision-making time between the production of the final voters’ register and the polling itself.

Notably, three things happened during this interval. First, the commission realized on May 19 (a day before the polling) that the voter verification exercise had resulted in such a significant increase in the number of voters in some areas that the number of ballot papers, which for security reasons had been printed in South Africa, would be insufficient. This prompted a crisis meeting organized by the CMD, during which the political parties were asked by the MEC to decide whether to cancel elections in the affected areas, to opt for by-elections, or to proceed with the printing of more ballot papers locally. After some persuasion, the political parties allowed the MEC to print additional ballot papers locally.

Second, political parties were not given copies of the final voters’ register, despite earlier agreements that the MEC would make them available to all the parties. It was observed during the elections that several polling stations did not have copies of the voters’ register,5 and people were allowed to cast votes simply by producing their voters’ certificates.

Third, because of the high priority the commission had placed on producing the voters’ register, other (equally important) electoral processes were ignored. Among these was the production of sheets for recording the numbers of votes cast in polling stations for transmission to the constituency and national tally centers. At the many polling centers that ended up without result sheets, the electoral officials were advised to improvise. In cases where result sheets were received, there were hardly enough. When errors occurred, officials in these cases were forced to deal with them by canceling votes, erasing wrong figures, and otherwise trying to make corrections. This resulted in the mutilation of many result sheets, which raised questions regarding their credibility and, indeed, the ability of election monitors to vouch for the “corrected” voting results.

Such lapses strongly suggest the MEC should seriously consider adopting biometric voter registration for primary data capture, along with implementing a continuous voter registration process that would eliminate the problems associated with the current electoral process and lend greater credibility to election results in the future.

Collation of votes cast and announcement of election results

According to section 96 of the Parliamentary and Presidential Elections Act, the MEC determines the results of elections based on the records it receives from the districts and polling stations. When, in May 2014, the results started trickling into the national tally center (after the computerized results management system was abandoned), the political parties and the MEC had a rude awakening. The results contained numerous inconsistencies, which the various competing interests referred to in different ways. While the DPP called them minor arithmetical errors, the electoral commission and election observers referred to them as irregularities; meanwhile, the ruling party and most opposition parties said that the elections were rigged. All agreed, however, that the results contained errors. Whatever the case may be, in considering areas of reform, among the factors to be acknowledged is that returning officers for the elections are mostly head teachers from schools. This provides an inherently predictable scenario for future elections; specifically, it bears the risk that some politicians could be tempted to induce the officials to alter or manipulate the election results.6

The numerous errors in the reported numbers of votes cast in district and polling stations meant the electoral commission had to do more than tally the results; in collaboration with the parties, it had to clean them up. At some point, the commission wanted to go back to the original result documents to check and verify the figures, but there were serious questions as to the legality of such an action. Also, the MEC had only eight days from the polling day to process and announce the election results. This time frame was set when the commission had to deal with only two elections—the parliamentary and presidential—but it continued to be imposed when it was expected to process results of the local government elections as well. Furthermore, any decision to recount votes and verify the results in some centers would also be constrained by the eight-day rule. In the end, the commission was forced to make do with whatever results it had, insofar as the rectification of errors would allow, and announce the results within eight days.

Conclusion

The elections of 2014 demonstrated a lot of weaknesses in Malawi’s electoral system. Never before had we seen people placing their votes in buckets or cartons because ballot boxes were unavailable; never before had the polling taken place over three days, increased from the mandatory single day; and never before had the results been announced just an hour before the expiration of the mandatory eight-day window, following judicial intervention in the process. These occurrences showed how fragile the entire electoral system is, which renders it vulnerable to errors that can conceivably undermine completely the credibility of elections conducted in Malawi’s future. A critical reassessment of the process and its reform are therefore necessary to avoid a repeat of the chaos that was the 2014 elections.

  1. “UDF, MCP Want 2 Seats Each in EC,” The Nation, January 16, 2008.
  2. Blessings Chinsinga et al., “Malawi’s Democracy Project at a Crossroads, Towards the Consolidation of Malawi’s Democracy,” Occasional Paper Series, East and Central Africa No. 11. Malawi: Konrad–Adenauer-Stiftung (2008), http://www.kas.de/wf/doc/kas_13979-544-2-30.pdf, accessed October 1, 2014.
  3. International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), Electoral Management Design (Stockholm: International IDEA, 2006), http://www.idea.int/publications/emd/upload/EMD_inlay_final.pdf, accessed October 1, 2014.
  4. See EU Election Follow-Up Mission to Malawi, 2013, Specific Contract N°2012/306520/1, Final Report, March 2013, http://eeas.europa.eu/eueom/pdf/missions/final_public_report_malawi_follow_up_mission_en.pdf, accessed October 1, 2014.
  5. See European Union Election Observation Mission, Final Report, Malawi 2014, http://eeas.europa.eu/eueom/missions/2014/malawi/pdf/eueom-malawi2014-final-report_en.pdf, accessed October 1, 2014.
  6. A few days before the May 20 elections, the Malawi Electoral Commission suspended some 13 polling staff for receiving some inducements. See http://www.malawivoice.com/2014/05/17/mec-suspends-13-polling-staff-receiving-bicycles-cash-felton-mulli/.
About the Author

Kizito Tenthani has worked in the area of democracy and governance for fifteen years. His work has focused on empowering rural communities in civil and political rights. In 2003 he joined the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD) as a national coordinator for Malawi. With support from NIMD he spearheaded the formation of the Centre for Multiparty Democracy (CMD) in Malawi in 1995 and has served as its executive director to date. Among other duties, he is involved in coordinating an interparty dialogue platform for political parties. He also facilitates dialogue between the Electoral Commission and political parties. Kizito holds a degree in public administration from the University of Malawi, Malawi, and a Master's degree in public and development management from the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. He is currently pursuing a PhD in development studies and his research is focusing on Malawi’s development experience from a political settlement perspective.

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