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AD363: Malawians’ voting intentions point to a closely contested presidential election

Joseph J. Chunga 20 May 2020 Malawi
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Key findings
  • As of late 2019, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP) were locked in a tie, each with 32% of Malawians saying they would vote for them in a presidential election. The UTM and United Democratic Front (UDF) trailed with 12% and 2%, respectively, while 22% of respondents did not declare a voting intention or said they would not vote.
  • Malawians’ voting intentions continued to show strong regional patterns. The DPP led in the Southern region (59%), followed distantly by the UTM (8%) and MCP (4%). In the Central region, the MCP predominated (55%) over the DPP (11%) and UTM (10%). The North was more heavily contested, with 46% for the MCP, 32% for the UTM, and 14% for the DPP
  • Respondents who saw the country as heading in the wrong direction were about half as likely to say they would vote for the ruling DPP (28%) as those who saw the country as headed in the right direction (58%).
  • An analysis of respondents who did not declare an intention to vote for a particular party suggests that young people, less-educated people, and residents of the Southern and Central regions may be the most promising targets for parties looking to increase their vote count

On 3 February 2020, the High Court of Malawi, sitting as a Constitutional Court, nullified presidential elections held in May 2019 and ordered new elections within 150 days (Republic of Malawi, 2020). On 8 May, the Supreme Court of Appeal rejected an appeal by President Peter Mutharika and the Malawi Electoral Commission (Mkandawire, L., 2020), setting the stage for fresh presidential polls by 2 July.

A highlight of both courts’ decisions concerned the definition of the word “majority” in Section 80(2) of the Constitution, which stipulates the proportion of votes a candidate needs in order to be declared the winner. The courts ruled that the correct interpretation is that a presidential candidate will be declared duly elected if he or she polls at least 50%+1 of the votes cast (Chiuta, 2020). This was a departure from previous elections, in which the candidate with the most votes (“first past the post”) was declared the winner.

In apparent reaction to this ruling, realizing that it is difficult for individual parties to attain the set threshold, political parties have moved to forge alliances. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has renewed its alliance with the United Democratic Front (UDF), which had fallen off before the May 2019 elections (Njalam’mano, 2020). The main opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP) has formed the Tonse (“all of us”) Alliance with the UTM party and seven smaller parties (Malekezo, 2020). Leaders on both sides claim they are set for a landslide victory (Chilunga, 2020; Mkandawire, M., 2020).

In this fast-moving political landscape, Afrobarometer does not have data that would allow it to predict election results. But voting intentions expressed in November-December 2019 – before the court rulings and the latest party alliances – suggest a stiff contest in the making, as the DPP and MCP were in a dead heat. One-fifth of respondents did not declare an intention to vote for a particular party, suggesting that the deciding votes may still be up for grabs.

Joseph Chunga

Joseph J. Chunga is the national investigator for Malawi.