Low turnout and violence marred voting in some areas on Tuesday when Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) conducted elections in the country’s nine political areas for representatives at either ward or constituency level.
At least 290 495 people were registered to vote in the elections held in Karonga North West, Ntchisi North West, Lilongwe Msinja South, Zomba Changalume, Nsanje North, Chikwawa East and Nsanje Central constituencies as well as Liviridzi Ward in Balaka West and Chitakale Ward in Mulanje South.
But spot checks by Nation, Malawi News Agency (Mana) and MEC stringers in the contested constituencies and wards established low voter turnouts and sheer disregard of the government’s Covid-19 precautionary measures in many voting centres.The
Speaking after inspecting selected polling centres in Zomba Changalume on Tuesday, MEC chairperson Chifundo Kachale confirmed reports of violence but said voting generally went well except in Karonga North West Constituency where heavy rains affected the voter turnout.
He said: “In cases of violence, the law enforcers will take action. So far, we know of a roadblock that was mounted in Lilongwe Msinja but police have gone there to restore peace. In Nsanje, some people wanted to cause violence but that has been addressed too.”
The MEC chairperson was referring to acts of intimidation in Lilongwe Msinja South Constituency where some people mounted illegal roadblocks at Malingunde Dam, Chakhuntha and Ntchentche entry points to check identities of motorists visiting the area.
Kachale described the incident as retrogressive and police later intervened and quelled the situation with heavy security.
But a community member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Mana that they mounted the roadblock after they were tipped that some people were taking marked ballot papers to the polling centres.
Nsanje Central Constituency exhibited tensions as Malawi Congress Party (MCP) supporters accused some Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) members of allegedly ferrying Mozambicans to vote for the latter’s candidate.
The Nsanje Central race pitted MCP’s Kafandikhale Mandevana against former governing DPP’s longtime legislator Francis Kasaila who wants to reclaim the seat he lost after the High Court nullified his 2019 victory over widespread irregularities.
Witnesses said violence erupted when MCP followers blocked the way about 100 metres from Chilumba Primary School polling centre, which lies near the Mozambican border, to safeguard the vote from suspected “foreigners”.
This, however, angered DPP and UTM Party officials who demanded that voting be suspended.
MEC officials at the centre subsequently suspended voting for almost two hours.
Voting resumed after MEC commissioner Arthur Nanthuru intervened with the help of police. He said it was improper to suspend the electoral process and ordered voting to resume.
Voting was, however, peaceful in nearby Nsanje North Constituency where Patrick Chimwemwe Bande (independent) and Enoch Masautso-Chizuzu (MCP) are challenging another ex-DPP lawmaker Esther Mcheka-Chilenje, whose 2019 win was also nullified by the courts also over irregularities.
Voting was widely peaceful in Zomba Changalume Constituency, one of the areas inspected by Kachale, where 10 candidates from UTM Party, DPP, People’s Party and UDF, among others, are contesting.
In Karonga North West, police arrested three people on allegations that they were giving cash to voters to influence their voting choices.
Karonga Police officer-in-charge Tiyese Chiumbuzo confirmed the arrests in an interview with The Nation last evening, but declined to reveal the identities and political party affiliations of the three.
Sketchy details from Chikwawa also indicate that police briefly detained a suspected MCP supporter on allegations that he was distributing tablets of soap to people in group village head Chipeta’s area in Traditional Authority Makhwira.
MCP’s Foster Thiphiwa and UDF’s Sam Khumbanyiwa, whose win in Chikwawa East Constituency in 2019 was also nullified in court, also filed a complaint with MEC alleging that some parties held campaigns outside the official campaign period.
But Chikwawa Police spokesperson Dickson Matemba asked for more time to consult before he could comment.
In Ntchisi North, a visit by Mana in the morning established a low turnout in most of the constituency’s 34 polling centres.
The constituency has 36 197 registered voters and the contesting candidates are Arnold William-Kadzanja (MCP), Kesinalakwiyo Mambeya (DPP) and Maurice M’bang’ombe (independent).
At Liviridzi Ward in Balaka West Constituency, voting was also hit by massive voter apathy as less than 600 voters out of the registered 3 575 voters cast their vote. Low turnout was also observed at Chitakale Ward in Mulanje South Constituency.
Commenting on the overall voter turnout, Kachale said the commission was impressed with the patronage, especially in parliamentary by-elections.
Voter apathy has steadily worsened in the country’s elections since the May 1994 general elections due to a combination of factors, including office bearers failure to deliver on their promises.
Figures on MEC’s website show voting trends have tumbled over the years, especially in by-elections. The figures also highlight worse voter turnouts of as low as 14 percent for the 2000 Local Government polls and 30 percent in the October 2017 by-elections.
Meanwhile, political analysts have said the election outcome will be a litmus taste for both the governing and opposition parties.
Mzuzu University political analyst Chrispin Mphande in an interview stressed that stakes were high for the UTM Party to prove its relevance.
He said: “These by-elections are a litmus test for both the ruling and opposition. Normally, it’s very difficult for a party in power to lose elections, because they have all the resources, and if they lose, they will have to rethink.”
On his part, Political Science Association president Joseph Chunga said the elections, coming after the euphoria of the June 23 2020 Fresh Presidential Election has settled, present a better gauge on where parties are standing.
He said: “It will tell the strengths of parties like UTM as a coalition partner of MCP, but also DPP as main opposition, as to whether it is still holding on or we should expect its strength to go. If they lose Nsanje Central and North that will be a big loss.”
In the previous two by-elections held since the May 2019 polls, independent candidates have won two seats in Mangochi West and Phalombe North, while MCP also won two in Karonga Central and Lilongwe North West constituencies.
UDF also won in Mangochi North East Constituency and Makhwira South Ward in Chikwawa.