Malawi’s opposition leader on Tuesday hailed a landmark court ruling that annulled last year’s presidential election and ordered a new vote, telling more than 10,000 celebrating supporters that the verdict was a victory for democracy and Africa.
Lazarus Chakwera, the leader of the main opposition Malawi Congress Party, came a close second to incumbent Peter Mutharika in the May 2019 presidential poll, but allegations of vote-rigging soon sparked protests across the normally peaceful southern African country.
Chakwera claimed he was robbed of victory and took the matter to court.
After six months of hearings that gripped Malawi, the constitutional court on Monday ruled that the incumbent Mutharika was “not duly elected”, citing widespread irregularities including the use of correction fluid on results sheets, and ordered a fresh election within 150 days.
“I am grateful to our judges for coming out with a ruling that has delivered justice to Malawians. This is a great day,” Chakwera told a cheering crowd of supporters from various opposition parties outside MCP headquarters in the capital Lilongwe.
“It is democracy that has won, it is Malawi that has won, it is Africa that has won. And now justice has been served.”
Malawi’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) urged citizens to “maintain peace and order”, with secretary general Grezeldar Jeffrey promising a “formal statement” on the constitutional court judgement.
Businesses and shops were shuttered on Monday as security was heightened over fears of violence over the verdict.
However, no police or soldiers were in evidence at the peaceful rally outside MCP headquarters on Tuesday.
In the third largest city of Zomba, opposition supporters sang and danced in the streets, calling on Mutharika to step down following the historic ruling.
The Southern African Development Community commended the court for “upholding the Malawian constitution” and pledged to “support… the election process”.
Mutharika, 79, will remain president until the new election.
His spokesman Mgeme Kalilani told AFP that he was “not ready to make a statement yet”.
The president has the right to appeal the verdict and has six weeks in which to do so.
– ‘Good time to be alive’ –
“They say that you cannot defeat a government,” said Daud Suleman, an IT expert who was the opposition’s star witness during the protracted court case.
“The journey has just begun,” he told the jubilant crowd outside MCP headquarters some three kilometres (two miles) from the presidential palace.
During celebrations overnight, opposition supporters sang anti-Mutharika songs and sporadically set off fireworks in Lilongwe and the second-largest city Blantyre.
“It is a good time to be alive in Malawi. We have demonstrated that democracy does and can work in Africa. And this victory is not for us, it is for generations to come,” said Lameck Hango, who celebrated with his friends in Lilongwe.
Another Lilongwe resident, Johnson Banda, said he was “very happy with this judgement”.
“It’s a true indication that Malawi has true democracy.”
But Mutharika supporter Chimpele Tsamwa was less pleased.
“The judgement is not what I expected nor wanted — but then all in all we trust the courts and have to go with what they have said. That’s the beauty with democracy,” he said.
The Nation newspaper led with the headline “Null and void”, while the Daily Times blared “It’s fresh election”.
– Results ‘cannot be trusted’ –
Mutharika was declared the winner of the 2019 election with 38.5 percent of the vote, Chakwera losing by just 159,000 votes.
But in their unprecedented ruling, the five constitutional court judges concurred that “the irregularities and anomalies have been so widespread, systematic and grave… that the integrity of the results has been seriously compromised”.
The court said only 23 per cent of the results sheets had been able to be verified, and that the results announced by the electoral commission “cannot be trusted as a true reflection of the will of the voters”.
It is the first time a presidential election has been challenged on legal grounds in Malawi since independence from Britain in 1964.
The outcome echoes a historic decision by Kenya’s judiciary to annul presidential election results over claims of widespread irregularities in 2017.
International powers have urged calm.
“We call upon all Malawians to respect the decision of the court and to adhere to the path outlined in Malawi’s constitution and electoral laws, including on the right to appeal,” said Tibor Nagy, the top US diplomat for Africa.
The European Union said it “stands ready to accompany Malawi on the way ahead in view of preserving the unity and democratic credentials of the country.” Agency report