Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) chairperson Chifundo Kachale has told election managers in southern African nations scheduled to hold polls to “not let the coronavirus pandemic kill democracy, but do the needful to safeguard lives”.
The MEC chief, who is a judge of the High Court of Malawi, said this on Thursday in a nine-nation webinar for leaders of political parties and electoral management bodies organised by Democracy Works Foundation (DWF) in partnership with the International Republican Institute (IRI).
The online discussion on how to conduct elections amid the global pandemic came exactly a month after Kachale’s commission conducted the court-sanctioned June 23 fresh presidential election that came just two weeks after his assuming office.
He said: “Democracy must be resilient and adapt to real life situations. The conditions may not be ideal, but we still have to organise elections. There are ways and means that can be engaged to protect lives.
“Life has challenges. Today it is Covid-19 and tomorrow it will be something else. We cannot use it as an excuse not to do what we ought to do.”
By Saturday evening, coronavirus had killed 94 of the 3 557 confirmed cases in the country. The pandemic has put democracy under threat worldwide.
Although postponement of elections span the globe, Kachale managed Africa’s first presidential election re-run won by an opposition leader—Lazarus Chakwera of Malawi Congress Party who led the nine-party Tonse Alliance.
He swiftly implemented Parliament’s resolution to expedite the court-ordered fresh presidential election four months after MEC, under his predecessor Justice of Appeal Jane Ansah, had unsuccessfully attempted to move the courts to delay the election.
This re-run came after the five-judge panel of the High Court of Malawi sitting as the Constitutional Court on February 3 nullified president Peter Mutharika’s narrow re-election in the May 21 2019 presidential election citing “widespread, systematic and grave irregularities”, especially in the results management system as submitted by Chakwera and UTM Party president Saulos Chilima.
The disputed election held on May 21 2019 gave rise to serial mass protests
curbing serious crimes such as corruption, fraud and money laundering.
He also hailed Chakwera’s emphasis on State institutions such as the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB), Financial Intelligence Authority, Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA) and the Judiciary, among others, to be empowered to be key players in the fight against corruption.
In the past, governance and oversight institutions such as the ACB, the National Audit Office, Directorate of Public Prosecutions and Financial Intelligence Authority have been systematically crippled through reduced funding, and the country’s first case in which a court annulled election results.
During the meeting, Kachale said: “We didn’t have the power to postpone the election ordered by the court and we believed that we were part of the solution to the Covid-19 pandemic given the unique situation since the election nullified by the court had created a legitimacy gap.”
In April, the Human Rights Defenders Coalition—which organised a series of post-election mass protests—obtained a court order stopping the government from imposing a nationwide lockdown to reduce coronavirus spread.
The mention of the pandemic in MEC’s futile attempt to postpone the poll ramped up questions over the national Covid-19 response.
But during the webinar, Kachale said the notion that the laws do not anticipate emergencies the size of the coronavirus disease was dishonest.
He said: “No one can make the decision to postpone elections willy-nilly.
“Our duty as an electoral management body is to make every voice count. I think the principle of one person one vote is fairer than a scenario where one person and others impose their decision on others.”
Kachale urged countries scheduled to go to polls this year to listen to everyone, especially experts, when deciding the future of the elections.
A snapshot by the Institute for Democratic and Electoral Assistance (Idea) shows that at least 67 nations and territories have postponed national and sub-national elections this year.
However, Malawi is among 49 countries that proceeded with elections as originally planned despite the public health concerns.
“Elections are a very important feature in any democracy as they give voice to the political will of the people and allow citizens to take part in government directly or through freely chosen representatives in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” said Augustine Magolowondo, chief of party at DWF.
DWF chief executive officer Olmo von Meijenfeldt called for new ways to make democracy resilient as “the pandemic may be here for a long haul”.
Political analyst Henry Chingaipe said to hold elections or not has become the greatest dilemma faced by democratic nations as coronavirus transmission accelerates.
Political parties in Malawi came under fire for defying coronavirus precautions, including frequently washing hands with soap, wearing recommended face masks, social distancing and hand sanitising.
Chingaipe and Zambia’s chief elections officer Patrick Nshindane warned against the laxity witnessed during the campaign period, saying democratic processes must safeguard the right to life.
He said the Electoral Commission of Zambia was working closely with the Ministry of Health, media and legal minds to advise electoral stakeholders, especially political parties, how they can safeguard lives and democracy.
Zambia has halved the registration period for next year’s general election from 60 days to reduce coronavirus spread which has claimed about 392 000 lives from almost 736 500 on the continent.
Tanzania, Seychelles, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Niger, Egypt and Nigeria are among African nations whose presidential, parliamentary, local government and State governorship elections remain on schedule.