Malawi polls on despite deadly COVID-19 threat

Malawi flag

Malawi flag

from MAVHUTO BANDA in Lilongwe, Malawi
LILONGWE, (CAJ News)THE Constitutional Court’s rejection of the electoral commission’s application to reschedule presidential elections, and the commencement of a voter registration exercise, indicate Malawi will proceed with polls despite the threat of coronavirus (COVID-19).

As the countdown to the July 3 polls got underway, analysts pointed out the move could prove either a regrettable one to the increasingly influential courts if tragedy struck in the form of the virus that is rampaging around the globe or will see Malawi’s newfound status as a beacon of democracy in Africa enhanced.

Recently, the Constitutional Court turned down an application by the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) to suspend the elections citing the pandemic that at the time of publishing had infected at least 36 people and killed three.

MEC had cited the tragedy as the basis of its application.

The election agency raised concern it faced challenges arranging key meetings because of the restrictions placed by the government to control the spread of the scourge that was first reported in China at the end of 2019.

Jane Ansah, the MEC chairperson, also cited problems in the arrangement of voting material after global lockdowns against the COVID-19 spread.

The MEC also cited the example of Ethiopia and South Africa, which suspended legislative and by-elections respectively as a result of the pandemic.

Ethiopia is the headquarters of the 55-member African Union (AU) while South Africa chairs the continental bloc, hence their decisions were seen as exemplary to the continent.

“It is reasonable at the moment to suspend the running of the period given by the court to allow the spreading of the virus to be contained and wait until such a time when it shall be deemed safe to resume the electoral processes,” Ansah stated in the MEC’s application.

Despite the seemingly valid reasons, the Constitutional Court rejected the application.

A panel of judges – Ivy Kamanga, Redson Kapindu, Dingiswayo Madise, Healey Potani and Mike Tembo- ruled only the Malawi Supreme Court of Appeal had jurisdiction over MEC’s application.

It is the latest episode of differences between the Constitutional Court and MEC.

In a first such ruling in the country’s 56-year post-independence history, in February, the court nullified the May 21 presidential poll that retained President Peter Mutharika in power.

He has been at the helm since 2014.

The court cited irregularities and ruled in favour of an application by the opposition candidates Lazarus Chakwera and Saulos Chilima.

Mutharika had won 38, 57 percent of the vote ahead of Chakwera (35,41 percent) and Chilima (20,24 percent).

Perceptibly, the opposition had been agitating for the polls to go ahead on July 3.

“It is the hallmark of the opposition we have here,” said analyst Lisimba Muyila.

“Such is the desperation for another shot at the presidency that they are oblivious of the danger posed by COVID-19 if polls go ahead. I find the courts complicit,” Muyila said.

He argued the courts, buoyed by the cancellation of the polls, were eager to “prove a point” to the executive.

Muyila was referring to a decision by the High Court to bar a proposed 21-day lockdown against COVID-19.

“The courts are playing to the gallery. Such a ruling is a sham considering lockdowns have proven effective the world over in halting the spread of the pandemic. I hope this, and the elections, are moves the court will not later regret,” Muyila said.

Osias Kapesa, the pro-democracy activist, said while the concerns raised by electoral authorities were valid, MEC must comply.

“Failure to comply with court rulings will be a mockery of democracy and render MEC rogue,” Kapesa said.

He forecast voter apathy if polls were held at a time the COVID-19 was still raging.

More than 6,85 million Malawians participated in last year’s votes, representing a 74,4 percent voter turnout.

This week, MEC began the second phase of the voter registration exercise. The process is scheduled to conclude on May 10.

MEC Commissioner, Moffat Banda, said, “We are under court order and we are going to do exactly what the court is telling us. We have to obey.”

– CAJ News

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