t is Tuesday morning. For large parts of Monday, I patiently listened to the lengthy, meticulously detailed and landmark court verdict that was broadcast live on the Internet by several radio stations in Malawi.
The ruling has been widely and very rightly praised both within Malawi and abroad. It is bold in not only annulling the May 2019 elections, but for also dealing with fundamental challenges that have long plagued the electoral system.
While the country’s identity abroad is all too frequently associated with poverty, Malawi will from now on be able to bask in the glory of having accomplished a feat that has only been once replicated on the African continent.
Judge Healey Potani and his four colleagues deserve much praise for their unanimous decision in ordering fresh elections. The numerous protests organised throughout the country since the previous election surely played a crucial part in the overall scheme of things—signaling to the judiciary that Malawi had changed; that Malawians were no longer willing to simply accept a fate handed out to them; that citizens were ready to fight against perceived injustices.
Thus, while the judiciary rightly deserves to be praised, the power, agency and influence of the Malawian population and the numerous social movements that have played a key role in the past nine months must not be underestimated.
The road ahead, however, can be challenging. The verdict will most likely be appealed to the Supreme Court, which itself will be under great pressure to not quash the extremely detailed legal arguments put forth by Judge Potani and his team.
But even when the country gears up for new elections to be held in five months from now, there are reasons to be concerned. A new round of elections inevitably promises an opportunity to further strengthen civil and political freedoms, ensure greater accountability of power holders based on performance and promises and increased responsiveness of the State in delivering public services.
But is there adequate administrative capacity to undertake radical changes at such short notice? What will the Malawi Election Commission do differently now? The lessons from the re-run of the presidential elections in Kenya in 2017, which was boycotted by the opposition, serve as an illustrative example of initial euphoria ending up in huge disappointment.
There is also the small matter of financing yet another expensive round of elections and ensuring its successful implementation without the irregularities that have been documented in detail in the court verdict. I also wonder how the outcomes of future elections will be more legitimate if the First Past the Post system is not abandoned altogether.
Malawi must urgently put into place a system where elections do not result in narrow mandates for the winning candidate.