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AD341: Malawians see declining quality of elections, express little trust in the electoral commission

Joseph J. Chunga 5 Feb 2020 Malawi
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Key findings
  • As of late 2019, a majority (55%) of Malawians said the May 2019 election fell short of being free and fair. Among supporters of the political parties of the major presidential challengers, more than three-fourths said the election was “not free and fair” or had “major problems.”
  • Almost three-fourths (73%) of Malawians said the 2019 election was worse in quality than previous elections. Even among supporters of the ruling DPP, more saw a decline in election quality than an improvement (50% vs. 41%).
  • Looking at the electoral process, about three out of 10 Malawians expressed concerns about media fairness, fear of political intimidation or violence, and ballot secrecy. Smaller proportions reported irregularities such as voters who cast multiple ballots and interference by security agents. But a majority (57%) pointed to the MEC’s declaration of the election results as faulty.
  • Only four in 10 Malawians (40%) saw the MEC as impartial, and only one in three (34%) said they trust the commission “somewhat” or “a lot.” Citizens’ views differed sharply by political-party affiliation, but overall, the MEC ranked last among key public institutions on both of these indicators.
  • Popular support for elections as the best way to choose leaders was at its lowest level (55%) since Afrobarometer began tracking this indicator.

Last May, Malawians went to the polls for their sixth national election since the country returned to multiparty democracy in 1994. The outcome was the most disputed election result in their history, marked by legal challenges, six months of court hearings covered live on leading radio stations, and an unprecedented series of public demonstrations led by the civil-society Human Rights Defenders Coalition demanding the resignation of commissioners of the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) (Sabola, 2019; Nyondo, 2019; Chiuta, 2019).

Nine months later, public debate over the presidential contest rages on, fueled anew by a Constitutional Court ruling this week striking down the MEC’s declaration that President Peter Mutharika of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won re-election with 38.57% of the vote. His closest challengers, Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP, 35.41%) and Saulos Chilima of the United Transformation Movement (UTM, 20.24%), had asked the court to annul the electoral results, claiming they were rigged.

Findings of a new national survey by Afrobarometer suggest that a majority of Malawians share serious concerns about the 2019 election. As of late last year, only a minority said the election was generally free and fair, and citizens overwhelmingly said it was worse in quality than previous elections.

In line with research showing that election quality is often assessed through partisan lenses – with the winners inclined to applaud and the losing side to condemn (Cantú & García-Ponce, 2015) – evaluations in Malawi differed sharply by respondents’ political-party affiliation. But their assessments went beyond blind party loyalties, as even DPP supporters were more likely to see election quality as deteriorating than as improving.

Among concerns about various aspects of the electoral process, the major shortcoming cited by a majority of respondents was a faulty declaration of results by the MEC, which was widely perceived as lacking impartiality and trustworthiness.

In line with the argument that voters’ views of electoral processes and outcomes shape their support for political systems (Esaiasson, 2011), support for elections as the best method for choosing Malawi’s leaders was at its lowest point ever recorded.

Joseph Chunga

Joseph J. Chunga is the national investigator for Malawi.