Rev Bob Milne is a volunteer with the World Mission Council in Zomba Presbytery of the Church of Central Africa, Blantyre Synod, Malawi. Bob was commissioned on 24th February in Comrie Parish Church and will be writing a series of blogs during his time in Malawi.
May 21st was Election Day in Malawi. An event that has thankfully happened every five years since 1994 when Multi-Party Democracy was introduced following a Referendum after nearly thirty years of an independent state dominated by the (then) single political party the Malawian Congress Party (MCP). This in turn was dominated by the architect of Malawian Independence, graduate of Edinburgh University and one time Elder of The Church of Scotland, President for Life, Hastings Kamuzu Banda. He is a man who ruled Malawi for thirty years and who, despite having died twenty years ago, still casts a long shadow over society.
Driving through Blantyre a small compound of buildings was pointed out to me. “That’s the former HQ of MCP”, I was told, “If you had been put in a car that turned in there you could be fairly sure you would not be coming out alive”. Yet many people will tell you, including the man who told me that chilling bit of history, that Banda was not in fact a ‘bad man’ the blame for the corruption and violence is laid fairly, squarely and justifiably at the feet of those who allied themselves to him. Many years ago a Church delegation which at the proposal stage was several strong but wound up as one man went to speak to Banda and tell him of the need for Multi-Party Democracy. As he left for the visit all warned the envoy not to go as his chances of survival were, at best, negligible but he was certain Banda would listen. And he did!
The 1994 Presidential Election saw Banda voted out of office as he was defeated by Bakili Muluzi of the United Democratic Front by just over 400 000 votes (47% to 33%). The handover of power was peaceful, conducted quickly and in accordance with the legal protocols laid down. Thankfully each election since, whilst not in total peace and with occasional riots, has resulted in a continuance of the democratic process.
I was assured that there was very little chance of serious rioting on 21st or as the results were announced, but I was also advised to make sure I had enough food in the house to last five days, and the flight agent’s number, just in case!
Polling day itself was a pleasant sunny day which allowed the polling stations to set up in the open air and they did a very brisk business all day. Queues formed early in the day and lasted through to closing time and in some cases the stations remained open to allow all who wanted to vote to do so.
The day itself was very peaceful, Zomba was quiet and it was nice to walk around the shops and market not being jostled continually. The college was closed to allow staff and students to go to their home districts to vote In Malawi there are no postal or proxy votes each must go their own place to vote (heard of something similar somewhere for a census or some such!). I was glad I ignored the advice to stay in and experienced the feeling of the town. It was very much a holiday atmosphere. As an added bonus I was delighted in the Airtel shop to be asked if I had voted, nice to think people accept me as being here long enough to be entitled to a vote!
The results were expected the next day or Thursday at the latest but no news came. Dark allegations were made of illicit acts being done to influence or rig the result. Eventually, it was announced that 11am Friday would see the results declared in full. I had to be in Blantyre that day and found a lot of businesses and offices closed for the day in anticipation of possible trouble. They need not have worried for no results were forthcoming as the opposition party, Hasting Banda’s MCP, had gone to the High Court and obtained an Injunction preventing any announcement until certain irregularities had been investigated. These included return sheets having original numbers typexed out and new ones written in and documents supposedly completed at either end of the country having the same handwriting!
Monday saw the injunction lifted and the Electoral Commission responsible for conducting the elections lost no time in declaring the incumbent President Peter Mutharika the winner by a very slender 159 00 vote majority or 3.16%. He, in turn, lost no time in getting himself and his Vice President sworn in. If he thought that was the end of it, he was sadly mistaken as now four weeks later court cases still rumble on. The Opposition put forward a case which the President then opposes on procedural grounds, but so far he has lost every legal maneuver. It is hoped that the actual cases can now be heard very soon so the country can move on.
The great thing about all of this, and a very large demonstration which took place in the capital Lilongwe at the weekend, is that it is all being conducted without violence and done legally, even legalistically. Many would not have thought that possible in early May. Democracy was hard won in Malawi; at times it may have been under great threat but it has survived and is now not only surviving but thriving through the acceptance of legal constraints rather than the law of might is right.
On a lighter note a few impressions of the electoral campaign.
Malawi elections are loud! And then some! One of the principal campaigning methods is for vans, pickups, lorries or anything with wheels and a motor to be loaded up with large, the larger the better, loudspeakers which are then turned up and driven around town from 5:30am till after dark broadcasting music, and occasionally speech, promoting whichever party. The campaign officially began at the end of March, 8 weeks before the election, but as everyone knew it was coming the circus was in full swing a month before.
Election rallies are colourful (and loud of course) with singing chanting and dancing. Very occasionally the candidate might say something too. Crowds of people are trucked (not bussed) to these events which go on for hours at a time.
I was surprised, but possibly shouldn’t have been, to find that candidates come along to Sunday Worship to introduce themselves. All the ministers were at pains to point out that while they were very welcome, the Church took no position on which way people should vote. There were days set-aside during the campaign for prayer meetings at which the candidates were expected to participate. The President came in for severe criticism when he missed one such meeting to attend a campaign rally in the North of the country. His claim that he could pray wherever he was cut no ice with the opposition or voters!
TV debates with the candidates were as dull as ditchwater. They were so tightly structured and moderated very little other than the usual political platitudes were possible.
It was a very different experience to Elections back in Britain in some ways better, in others not so, but very interesting to observe. Now the only question to be resolved is will all the legal cases be settled and everyone know who the President will be for the next five years before it’s time for me to leave at the end of August?
Rev Bob Milne – Zomba Theological College