How one of world’s poorest countries can teach US a vital lesson – Susan Dalgety

In Malawi, civil society groups are celebrating a ‘new beginning for our nation’ after last year’s presidential election result was overturned with a new vote held this week, writes Susan Dalgety.

A woman casts her vote at the Malembo polling station in Lilongwe on Tuesday in a re-run of last year’s presidential election (Picture: Amos Gumulira/AFP via Getty Images)
A woman casts her vote at the Malembo polling station in Lilongwe on Tuesday in a re-run of last year’s presidential election (Picture: Amos Gumulira/AFP via Getty Images)

There are many lines worth reflecting on in Stacey Abrams’ new book, Our Time is Now.

The African American politician may have lost her 2018 campaign for the governorship of Georgia, in large part because of dirty electoral tricks by her Republican opponent, but she holds fast to her fundamental belief in the ballot box.

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“Voting is an act of faith,” she writes. “It is profound. In a democracy, it is the ultimate power.

“Through the vote, the poor can access financial means, the infirm can find healthcare supports, and the burdened and heavy-laden can receive a measure of relief from a social safety net that serves us all. And we are willing to go to war to defend the sacred.”

This morning, the people of Malawi are celebrating their defence of the sacred.

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On Thursday, following a court ruling in February that declared the country’s 2019 presidential elections null and void because of irregularities in the ballot, voters went back to the polls.

This time there were no British MPs or high-ranking South African politicians on hand to observe the elections from the comfort of their shiny white four-by-fours. No highly paid team of international auditors to oversee the counting of votes.

‘Grave’ election irregularities

Last year, the EU-funded scrutineers shrugged, “it’s fine”, when faced with tally sheets covered in Tippex, and declared the election fair and free before catching the first business-class flight back home.

But within months, Malawi’s constitutional court found that there had been “widespread, systematic and grave” irregularities in the ballot and called for its re-run.

Civil society was jubilant, the Malawi parliament set a new date, and even the sitting President, Peter Mutharika, was forced to accept the need for a fresh election.

Faced with a pandemic, a shortage of cash and little practical support from the international community, there were many who doubted that Malawi – one of the world’s poorest countries – could organise a fair and free election on its own.

But Malawians, who escaped British colonial rule in 1964 only to be held in the grip of an authoritarian ruler, Hastings Banda, for 30 years, believe in the Stacey Abrams maxim. Their vote is sacred.

The new head of the Malawi Electoral Commission, a high court judge, had less than a month to organise the re-run, but on Tuesday morning when the polls opened, there were polling clerks in place, plastic ballot boxes ready and queues of socially distanced voters waiting patiently to play their part in their historic election.

Speaking to French public radio station RFI, leading political analyst Boniface Dulani declared the election to be fair.

“Generally speaking, the quality and organisation was a lot better than last year’s annulled election,” he said.

“The new leadership at the electoral commission placed emphasis on the fact that any electoral staff who messed up would be personally held liable. A lot of the polling staff took that to heart – they were a lot more cautious in the way they did things than before.”

Democracy protected

Dulani was also an observer in the election. A civil society coalition of women’s groups, human rights activists and churches had formed a national army of election observers to replace the international, all-expenses-paid teams. Armed only with their cell phones, they oversaw the election, and the crucial counting of votes, with passionate professionalism.

It mattered to people like Maggie Banda, chief executive of the Women’s Legal Resources Centre, that her country’s democracy was protected. She too was an election observer.

“The elections were successful and well-managed and people’s votes were not tampered with, as happened in 2019,” she says.

“The result is important because it marks a new beginning for our nation. Change is coming, and because we have learned as a nation how democracy works, we know what we will tolerate as citizens, and what we will not. We have learnt how to keep our leaders accountable.”

And Everson Mpayani, a community activist, is also proud of his country’s political maturity. “We fought so hard in 1993 for multi-party democracy, and I am so pleased that, in a short time, we have reached the stage where our electoral process is one of the best in Africa. We have achieved this by following the rule of law, and making national cohesion and equal rights our priority.”

The result? As I write, it has not been officially declared, but the provisional returns are clear that the sitting President has been ousted, and the opposition Tonse (All of us) Alliance has won the day.

The Alliance is another remarkable feature of this election. It is a partnership between the two main opposition parties, the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and the United Transformation Party (UTM).

The leader of the MCP, Dr Lazarus Chakwera, will be sworn in as Malawi’s sixth elected head of state, while the UTM head, Dr Saulos Chilima, will be Vice President and, crucially, minister of finance.

Chilima, who stood as a presidential candidate in 2019, sacrificed his leadership ambitions for the sake of his country’s development.

He is only 47, a young man in African terms, so may yet take the presidential crown, but for the moment he is content to give way to his senior.

A lesson for America

When I interviewed Chilima in February, just after the court ruled the presidential election should be re-run, he said his party had a simple promise. “We want a happy nation, to be a middle-income economy where people enjoy three meals a day. And we can do it.”

In her book, Stacey Abrams warns that voters should not put all their faith into one person. “No matter who we elect as president, one person alone cannot fix what ails us, or forestall what is to come.”

She refers, of course, to the United States of America, where millions are counting the days until they get their chance to vote the increasingly bizarre Donald Trump out of office.

Joe Biden may start to heal America, torn apart by Trump and his alt-right buddies, but it will take all its institutions, from the Supreme Court to state officials, to rebuild the world’s biggest economy, shattered by coronavirus and Trump’s crass ineptitude. In the last few months, Malawi has shown what can happen when a country’s institutions, from the judiciary to the smallest NGO, work together for the greater good.

The world’s richest country has much to learn from one of the world’s poorest.

For the latest on Malawi’s election results see The Nation newspaper at www.mwnation.com

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