On May 20th, Malawi went to the polls for its fifth ever democratic elections. However, for the first time they would vote on three levels – local, parliament and presidential. It was my first time witnessing an election overseas, and it was incredible. First, I found it amusing that among the candidates for president were:
a) the current president,
b) the former president’s brother,
c) the other former president’s son, and
d) an unknown pastor.
This gives you an idea the small pool of the intellectual elite and politically connected families in the country. There was lots of speculation in the run up to the big day, lots of preparation of 'security plans' and phone trees, speculation of rest or unrest. The only thing that happened was the day before voting, a rumor circulated in Lilongwe that some ballots were “pre-checked” for the current President, Joyce Banda, so a District Commissioner’s office that had these alleged ballots was vandalized.
Despite the rumor, Tuesday the 20th dawned clear and crisp. In my area of Lilongwe, the polling station opened on time (6am) and by the time I went to work (7:45), my gardener, Dan, and his entire family, had already been to vote and returned with purple fingers. So far so good.
However, some polling stations in Blantyre and other areas didn’t have the correct materials (pens, ballot papers, plastic ballot boxes) so they didn’t open on time. In fact, some didn’t open at all. Long queues snaked throughout the village and people waited patiently, and then, not so patiently. A few (maybe 8?) polling stations were trashed. News of this rippled through the expat community via texts and emails as “There’s unrest in Blantyre. Stay home.” As a result, the Malawi Electoral commission (MEC) extended voting into Wednesday, and then into Thursday.
My offices, like many others, were closed that day. We let everyone work from home so they could go vote. It wasn’t a national holiday, but it felt like it, as the streets were subdued. After taking out some security money, filling my gas tank and finding my passport, I went over to a friend’s house to watch it all unfold. My day was spent checking emails, the local Malawi Broadcasting channel and watching movies.
The next day I awoke to an email from my boyfriend with a link to an Al Jazeera headline – Riots Mar Malawian Elections. Riots? You mean the polling station unrest? I found that more than a little odd. Yes, there was some damage, but there were 4500 polling stations overall. This happened in only a few. While I realize that even a few is a bit of an anomaly in the West, was it overall unsafe? No.
Everything was still unfolding, so our offices decided to open – even if everyone huddled around their radios to hear the latest unofficial results. Of the four major presidential candidates, the president was in a distant third. By Friday, the former president’s brother and the unknown pastor were in a statistical dead heat. The Malawi Electoral Commission had eight days to announce the winner. It felt like the 2000 US Presidential elections all over again.
And then things got interesting.
On Saturday, President Banda got on the radio and unhelpfully announced that by Constitutional authority, she was declaring the elections null and void. New elections, on ALL levels, would take place in ninety days. She declared that she would not run again.
I thought this was hilarious. What constitution would allow for the current President – or any President for that matter – the ability to nullify elections? What would prevent them from exercising this right when they didn’t win? Seemed like an egregious overreach of power. Luckily, the courts thought the same thing. Even more luckily, the constitution doesn’t actually say that. Again, this was picked up by the international media.
The situation over the weekend was stable, but tense. The streets were quiet, but rumors of riots still circulated. Apparently some shops were smashed in the Old Town Area 2 of Lilongwe, and in some of the outlying neighborhoods. The tension was palpable, but strangely, my life went on as normal. I went back home. Avoiding Area 2, I nipped out to the local grocery store, got money from the ATM and filled my gas tank – just in case I had to make a break for the border.
I’ve never encountered a situation like this; where you don’t really know what’s happening. Danger could be lurking right around the corner, or not at all. It was interesting to see what different policies organizations had. For almost all companies, it was business as usual. Embassies and the UN were kept on high alert and told to stay home. A few friends were booked rooms by their organizations at the nicest hotels in town for extra security. The US Embassy issued a statement to all Americans that we should avoid demonstrations which, for the most part, never materialized. I stayed with friends and then, eventually moved home.
It was so odd, being on High Alert, but not knowing for what. I felt a little bit like a lobster in water, not knowing if it was suddenly getting hotter. The mind game was intense, but also, strangely easy to forget. The sun kept shining, the world kept rolling. My toilet needed fixing; the electrician had to come rewire my refrigerator socket. I ran out of milk. My organization kept monitoring the situation but by the following Monday, we were basically back to work as normal.
That same Monday, MEC filed a request to have their 8 day requirement extended to 30-days for a manual recount. Apparently, while votes are counted by hand at the polling station, they are aggregated at the district level. These aggregates were then fed into the MEC system. There were allegations of tampering at a few of the District level stations with the tallies. While this may be true, a friend of mine who was an EU election monitor mentioned that they weren’t using calculators to tabulate the results at many polls, so it could just as likely have been mathematical errors over anything else.
There were a few more protests, most notably one in the city of Mangochi on Friday where an opposition party demanded a recount, burned tires and one unfortunate person was shot and killed. However, we’ll never know what a recount would bring because, as it turns out, the MEC request for an extension was denied (or rather, never really responded to as the judge in the matter recused himself). They were forced to announce their results late Friday evening, May 30th. With 36% of the vote, the winner is 74 year old Peter Mutharika, brother to the former President Bingu Mutharika, who died unexpectedly in April 2012. The new President was sworn in on Saturday, with his official inauguration the following Monday, nearly two weeks from election-day. For us in the United States, this is a quick turnaround, but for Malawi – what a ride!
Despite all the tension and not-knowing, I’m glad I was here to witness how another country handles elections. I walked away impressed with the integrity of the Electoral Commission, who despite it all, kept cool, calm and collected. Their announcements were always very measured, while the local media tended towards the incendiary. I was impressed on how educated everyone seemed to regarding the Constitution, what was allowed, what laws meant and didn’t mean. The level of engagement was exciting. I was even impressed that Joyce Banda, despite throwing a few curve-balls in the beginning, handed over power peacefully.
The international media, for the most part, kept reporting on what Joyce Banda was doing, even though she was sidelined early on (both by her clear lagging in the polls, and by the Judicial branch). There seemed to be a perception from the outside that all was in chaos. While it was messy, it could’ve been worse. For me, the most interesting part was how the international media kept reporting in broad strokes, instead of any hard hitting detail. But then, as a friend reminded me, Malawi was lucky to be in the international media at all, even if it was slightly misinformed.
As Paul Harvey used to say:
And now you know…the rest of the story!