Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) is facing a race against time to hold the court-sanctioned fresh presidential election on June 23 with new chairperson Chifundo Kachale conceding it is a daunting task.
But while acknowledging the situation MEC has found itself in, political commentators and legal minds have said the mess is the electoral body’s own making as it spent time fighting court battles instead of preparing for the fresh election the Constitutional Court ordered on February 3 to be held within 150 days.
In a statement on Wednesday evening, Kachale, a judge of the High Court of Malawi based in Lilongwe, said the commission has reluctantly accepted that the election be held on June 23 because the electoral body is still facing challenges.
He said: “The commission’s decision to publish the polling date has been arrived at with considerable hesitation arising from the practicalities of holding a genuine and credible election in view of logistical challenges that the commission anticipates in implementing steps towards the holding of the polls.
“Meanwhile, the commission is promptly seeking to engage directly with all contesting candidates to appraise them of these anticipated challenges and to explore reasonable mitigation measures for purposes of ensuring delivery of a credible, free and fair election per the relevant mandate for this ominous fresh presidential election.”
In an interview on Thursday, Political Science Association president Joseph Chunga wondered how MEC could have managed the situation if the five-judge panel of the High Court of Malawi had given the electoral body 60 days to hold the poll as the Malawi Supreme Court of Appeal said was the prescribed period to hold a fresh election.
He noted that the Kachale-chaired commission, ushered in this week following the expiry of the previous team’s tenure, has little time to address all challenges and suggested that the electoral body should engage in honest discussions with political parties.
Said Chunga: “We are at this point not because MEC didn’t have enough time to prepare, they had 150 days, but time was wasted on appeals and doing the preparations half-hearted.
“I personally understand the daunting task for Kachale and the new commissioners. Two weeks is too little time to organise a credible election. So, if they don’t deliver the best of elections, due to logistical challenges, one would understand because of where we are coming from.”
On his part, Sunduzwayo Madise, dean of law at Chancellor College—a constituent college of the University of Malawi, also said on Thursday that Kachale has a daunting task to convince parties on the challenges being faced.
But he said it is critical for MEC to clearly come out on the kind of logistical challenges it is facing. He also observed that MEC “had all the time to prepare”, suggested the June 23 date to Parliament and halted printing of ballot papers.
Madise said: “It was MEC that suggested the June 23 date to Parliament, but proceeded to stop printing ballot papers, why? These ballots are printed by high level industry machines so it can’t take long! So, which logistical challenges? The ones that are man-made?
“Last year, the ballot papers came in seven days to the election and we have this year five days to that point. Should we have challenges, unless they say ballot papers can’t arrive by that day and the question will remain, why not?”
The first batch of ballot papers for the May 21 2019 Tripartite Elections arrived through Kamuzu International Airport (KIA) in Lilongwe on May 13 while the rest arrived on May 14 and MEC started dispatching them to district councils on May 16.
Reacting to the development, Malawi Congress Party (MCP) spokesperson Maurice Munthali said the Tonse Alliance torchbearer, Lazarus Chakwera, is ready to meet Kachale and brainstorm on the said challenges.
But he said the alliance is geared to have elections on June 23 and would not accept any changes.
Said Munthali: “If there are challenges that MEC is facing or is likely to face, then those challenges have to be sorted out together with the stakeholders. In the past, the MEC thought it was the answer to everything. This time, let’s act all together.”
Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) spokesperson Nicholas Dausi said he was yet to see Kachale’s statement, but said the matter was an important one; hence, he needed to consult party authorities before commenting.
On the specific logistical challenges facing the electoral body, MEC spokesperson Sangwani Mwafulirwa said the commission will convene a press conference “soon” to update the nation on several issues, including the status of ballot papers.
Both Kachale and chief elections officer Sam Alfandika did not pick our calls on several attempts, but in a statement on June 5, Alfandika said the new commissioners would provide direction on ballot papers.