Malawi's constitutional court on Monday ordered a new presidential poll after annulling the results of a vote that re-elected President Peter Mutharika last May, citing widespread irregularities including the use of correction fluid on ballot papers.
Mutharika, who will remain president until the fresh polls, has the right to appeal the verdict, which is expected to stoke turmoil in the normally peaceful southern African country.
"We hold that the first respondent (Mutharika) was not duly elected as president of Malawi on May 21, 2019," ruled lead judge Healey Potani.
"We hereby nullify the results of the presidential elections and we order for a fresh election" within 150 days, he added, sparking jubilation in the court.
The verdict was greeted with festive cheer in the second city of Blantyre, where residents in impoverished townships set off fireworks.
"I'm delighted. I am short of words really but this is a bright new day for Malawi, " said an university student Laura Banda.
"I hope this is a turning point for the country," the 22-year-old added.
The main opposition Malawi Congress Party, which led the court challenge, hailed the ruling as "a very fair judgement" that had "set a precedent" for future elections.
The five judges concurred that "the irregularities and anomalies have been so widespread, systematic and grave... that the integrity of the results has been seriously compromised".
They added that the results announced by Malawi's Electoral Commission (MEC) "cannot be trusted as a true reflection of the will of the voters".
Neither the ruling party nor the government responded to requests for comment.
"I am still consulting and will only be able to talk to you once I have talked to my superiors," government spokesman Mark Botomani told AFP.
Sporadic protests have broken out across the country since Mutharika was declared the winner by a narrow margin, with 38.5 percent of the vote.
Runner-up Lazarus Chakwera, who lost by just 159,000 votes, said he was robbed of victory and took the matter to court.
The case gripped the nation, keeping Malawians glued to their radios for hours on end as witnesses presented evidence of alleged vote-rigging during six months of hearings.
- 'Unjustifiable' -
Security was tight for Monday's ruling, with a heavy military presence around the court. Several businesses and schools had closed for the week, fearing violence.
The judges were driven to court in a military armoured vehicle.
An army helicopter occasionally hovered above the courthouse and the central business district.
"It is clear that the use of Tippex (correction fluid) was employed by (MEC) officers to hide votes," said judge Ivy Kamanga, taking a turn reading an abridged version of the 500-page judgment -- which nevertheless took more than nine hours to deliver.
"Use of Tippex was unjustifiable and an irregularity," she said, adding that the way in which the MEC "dealt with the alterations was not in line with the law, hence it was irregular".
The court also said that only a quarter of the results sheets were verified, calling this "a serious malpractice that undermined the elections".
- 'Seismic decision' -
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.
"It's a seismic decision," said Danwood Chirwa, a Malawian law professor lecturing at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.
"The judges were called upon to reset the state of democracy in the country: they've risen to the challenge, and they have re-inaugurated our democracy," he added.
Protesters took to the streets over several months last year demanding the resignation of the MEC chief, and many demonstrations turned violent.
Anger flared last month after Chief Justice Andrew Nyirenda claimed bribes had been offered to the judges.
Malawi's anti-graft body vowed to probe the allegations and arrested top banker Thom Mpinganjira last month.
Mutharika, 79, has repeatedly dismissed opposition accusations that the poll was rigged and shrugged off doubts over the official results.
International powers sought 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 in a statement that it "stands ready to accompany Malawi on the way ahead in view of preserving the unity and democratic credentials of the country".
Mutharika will remain president until the fresh polls
Security was tight for the ruling in a case that has gripped the nation
The court said only a quarter of the results sheets were verified and it "finds this to be a serious malpractice that undermined the elections"
Protests have broken out in the Malawian capital Lilongwe following accusations that bribes were offered to the five judges on the case