Malawi votes in closely-watched historic presidential re-run

by Jack McBRAMS
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At Malembo Primary School in the capital, voters washed their hands with soap and water before lining up to vote, but none wore face masks or kept their distance in the long queue

Malawian voters defied the coronavirus pandemic on Tuesday to return to the polls for the second time in just over a year after President Peter Mutharika's re-election was annulled in a dramatic court ruling.

The hotly-anticipated re-run was ordered by the Constitutional Court, which declared that the May 2019 vote, narrowly won by Mutharika, was fraught with "grave and widespread irregularities" including the use of correction fluid on results sheets.

It ordered new elections be held within 150 days of its February ruling.

The new polling deadline coincided with the coronavirus pandemic raging across world, but that did not deter candidates who staged rallies attracting tens of thousands of supporters across the country.

The landmark verdict reverberated across African politics, for it made Malawi just the second country south of the Sahara to have presidential poll results set aside, after Kenya in 2017.

But that decision sent Mutharika into a frenzy, accusing judges of working with the opposition to steal the election through what he dubbed a "judicial coup d'etat".

On Tuesday, he accused the opposition of inciting violence following unconfirmed reports of isolated incidents.

- Two-horse race -

"It's obvious that the opposition is doing this. This is totally unnecessary," he told reporters after voting in Blantyre.

He claimed some of his party monitors were "chased away, some were beaten".

"It's obviously people that are afraid of the will of the people that are engaging in these barbaric acts. I condemn it completely."

Tuesday's election was practically a two-horse race between the president and Lazarus Chakwera, who lost the election by 159,000 votes.

Mutharika, who turns 80 next month, won with 38.5 percent of the ballots against Chakwera's 35 percent, according to the now-discredited results.

Victory in the rerun will be determined by whoever garners more than 50 percent of the votes -- a new threshold welcomed by the Public Affairs Committee, an influential quasi-religious civic group.

"This election is unique. First, this election is born out of a court ruling and second, they will follow the 50-percent-plus-one system," the group said.

"I am happy because this re-run is the will of the people. I just hope that the best person wins," said Peter Chadza, 26, a businessman who voted in the capital.

- 'Our date with destiny' -

Chakwera, 65, enjoys the support of nine political parties in his bid to unseat the president.

"I believe that Malawians' quest for justice is being answered today (and)... that rights will be respected," said Chakwera after casting his ballot at a primary school in Lilongwe.

"This is our date with destiny and this is (the) time for the beginning of a new Malawi," he said, expressing "confidence" the electoral commission will do what is right.

A new electoral commission was appointed on June 8, with Chifundo Kachale replacing the controversial Jane Ansah as chairman.

Kachale described the voting which ended at 1600 GMT as "generally peaceful with some unfortunate incidents but this did not disturb the process".

He gave no details of the incidents but vowed to deliver "a credible and transparent election".

Army chief General Peter Namathanga told reporters: "We will jealousy guard peoples' votes. We will take measures to deter all those with ill intentions."

In a statement, the UN called on Malawi's "political actors and stakeholders to renew their commitment to credible and peaceful elections, while observing all preventive measures against the spread of COVID-19".

The coronavirus pandemic has killed 11 people and infected at least 730 in the poor country of 18 million.

The electoral commission has provided hand-washing points at each of the 5,000 polling stations to guard against the spread of COVID-19.

At Malembo Primary School in the capital, voters washed their hands with soap and water before lining up to vote, but none wore face masks or kept their distance in the long queue.

"People really want to vote, whether we have coronavirus or not," said Innocent Maguya, a 34-year-old driver, queueing up to cast his ballot.

"We would rather risk the disease than run the risk of having a president that people don't want. We cannot stop this crucial vote because there are no face masks," he said.

Some 6.8 million people were registered for voting, which was due to end at 1600 GMT after 12 hours.

The electoral commission has until July 3 to unveil the results, although the announcement is widely thought likely to come on Wednesday or Thursday.

At Malembo Primary School in the capital, voters washed their hands with soap and water before lining up to vote, but none wore face masks or kept their distance in the long queue

The election is practically a two-horse race between President Peter Mutharika, left, and his main rival Lazarus Chakwera, who lost the last election by 159,000 votes

Chakwera wore a mask as he cast his ballot at a school in Lilongwe

Malawi's vote took place amid the coronavirus pandemic that has killed 11 people and infected at least 730 in the country of 18 million

Malawi's ranking on a range of indicators compared with some neighbouring countries