As Malawians have endlessly debated, challenged, defended, and protested the results of last May’s presidential election, all eyes and ears have been on the country’s courts.
Citizens followed six months of court hearings broadcast live on radio and the Internet, then braced for this week’s Constitutional Court ruling, which struck down the Malawi Electoral Commission’s declaration of a narrow election victory for President Peter Mutharika with 38.57% of the vote. His main challengers, Lazarus Chakwera and Saulos Chilima, had asked the court to annul the election, claiming it was rigged.
Given the critical role of courts in dispute resolution and enforcement in high-stakes elections (Gloppen & Kanyongolo, 2004; Patel & Wahman, 2015), the importance of judicial impartiality, popular trust, and general respect of court decisions cannot be overemphasized (Vondoepp, 2005; Ellett, 2015).
Findings from a national survey by Afrobarometer, conducted last November-December, provide some insight into how Malawians perceive their courts – or how they perceived them as the pivotal legal case advanced in late 2019, since a high-profile ruling like this week’s annulment of the election could change some minds. Most citizens were aware of the court case challenging the validity of the presidential election results, and most said the opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and United Transformation Movement (UTM) were justified in filing a legal challenge against the declared victory of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate.
Large majorities saw the courts as impartial and trustworthy, and most said the president must always obey the laws and courts, even if he thinks they are wrong. But Malawians were split as to whether the losing side in an election should always have the right to challenge its defeat in court.