Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) plans to meet to decide how to implement the electoral calendar in preparation for fresh presidential elections following the ban on gathering of up to 100 people as a precautionary measure against the spread of coronavirus.
But analysts say though the ban has the potential to affect preparations for the Constitutional Court-ordered presidential elections, MEC has no power to change the date for the polls scheduled for May 19 2020.
In a telephone interview yesterday, MEC chairperson Jane Ansah said commissioners are expected to meet soon and come up with a position on how to respond to the order. She said the President’s statement must be taken seriously.
“We have seen the statement, but I cannot answer on my own for now. We will have to meet and make a decision as a commission because this is a serious matter. I cannot tell you if preparations will be affected or not but you must know that coronavirus is not a joke,” she said.
Electoral processes such as registration, civic education and political parties’ campaign rallies and voting attract large gathering of people.
In a statement on Friday, President Peter Mutharika declared Malawi a State of Disaster and made a number of orders, including the ban on gatherings.
Reads in part the statement: “My government has directed that all schools, colleges [including technical colleges], both public and private universities should be closed by Monday, 23rd March, 2020; my government is restricting public gatherings to less than 100 people forthwith.
“This restriction applies to all gatherings, including weddings, funerals, church, congregations, rallies, government meetings. The national security apparatus has been ordered into action to enforce these restrictions.”
Opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP), which has entered into an alliance with UTM Party and others, says while it appreciates the instituted measures to contain coronavirus, but expects government to equally respect the court order to hold elections within the agreed time.
MCP spokesperson Maurice Munthali said elections can still take place even when public gatherings are banned.
He said each political party and indeed the electoral body can implement all activities with extra care.
“While we are working to contain this global pandemic, we must know that we have a national issue to attend
to [elections] and we must do everything to avoid a constitutional crisis.
“All these are important issues we need to focus on. We do not want to have anyone frustrate the electoral process using the coronavirus,” said Munthali.
He said his party is not worried that it may not be able to organise large-crowd rallies to woo votes, saying they will have to look at new ways of campaigning without defying the ban.
United Democratic Front (UDF) spokesperson Ken Ndanga agreed with Munthali that parties can still reach out to voters differently.
He said with fresh elections in mind, the country ought to focus its energy to prevent the spread of the virus.
“We must put people’s lives first over anything. The reason we have fresh elections is for someone to form government and serve the people.
“If these people get the virus and die who will be there to serve? I think the coronavirus deserves more attention” said the UDF publicist whose party is in an electoral alliance with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
But if political parties can identify creative ways of conducting campaign without gathering people to over 100, then this will be a first of its kind campaign style as political parties have gotten used to organising massive political rallies, sometimes ferrying people from far to help make a statement that theirs is a party with huge following.
Should the virus persist—the presidential ban is likely to stay on and essentially push MEC to think of new ways too of reaching out to people either during registration or voting where crowds cannot be avoided.
Political analyst Henry Chingaipe says managing crowds during registration and voting may pose a huge challenge as it has the potential to bring about voter apathy.
While he agrees with measures put in place to avoid coronavirus, he said the petitioners to the court case may go back to court and seek further guidance, saying this would be more procedural than where the electoral body decides to vary the calendar on the basis of the deadly virus.
Said Chingaipe: “They can go back to court and report progress on the implementation of the order and also present their case in terms of the circumstances surrounding the implementation of the orders and seek fresh guidance.
“The court is a reasonable court …if it is extension of time that should be the direction the court itself may make, no one should take it upon themselves that there is coronavirus, therefore, we will change the time.”
University of Cape Town in South Africa professor law Danwood Chirwa also agreed that any variation to the electoral calendar or when elections should be held is under the mandate of the court.
He said the concerned parties may not need to go back to court now as this matter may be attended to by the Supreme Court which is looking into the appeal case.
Chirwa argued the measures that the President has put in place to contain the virus need the endorsement of Parliament to have them implemented effectively.
He further said there is no justification to halt the electoral process on the basis of public health concern.
“The electoral campaign must continue without large gatherings. A creative way for voting must be found. That will require a conversation among all parties and MEC.
“This is why public confidence in MEC becomes very critical. The current MEC does not enjoy such trust and so it will struggle to deliver on its constitutional duties,” said Chirwa.
For the electoral process to move, Parliament is expected to deliberate on electoral Bills that the President rejected to assent.
The national assembly itself is a meeting of 193 members, which if staff members were included it would be more than two times the stipulated limit of gathering.
According to Chingaipe in the interest of fresh elections, Parliament may be an exception to the rule.
He suggested that one option is to put MPs, during the meeting, under medical surveillance to avoid the spread of the virus.
Chingaipe said no matter what, Parliament meeting remains crucial; hence, a better and safe way must be identified.
- Fever, Cough. Sore throat,
- Difficulty breathing
- That black people are immune
- That warm climate is protective
- Washing hands frequently with soap & water
- Stop handshakes
- Cover mouth & nose when coughing