OPINION: WHY MCP & UTM MIGHT NOT WORK TOGETHER IN PURSUIT OF A NULLIFICATION — ELECTORAL POLITICS
Below are a few brief remarks on the political incentives operating in the post-inauguration period in Malawi after the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) declared the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Peter Mutharika winner of the May 21, 2019 elections. As promised, a more detailed analysis will follow.
The political calculations of the MCP and UTM are informed by the demographic dynamics of the prevailing voters roll established by MEC following their voter registration exercise in preparation for the just ended elections. In that roll, voter apathy is apparent, especially in the southern region, where a strong support base for the DPP was confronted by nearly weekly revelations of government corruption for several months leading up to May 2019. Additionally, the national crisis (yes, it was and remains a national crisis) of the abductions and murders of People with Albinism (PwA) also put a lot of voters in the southern region off: the government and political leadership handled that matter poorly even as the opposition incorporated it into their electoral messaging.
The natural disasters arising from heavy rainfall in the southern region too, impacted both voter mobility to register to vote, as well as voter turn-out on polling day. The result of all these political and climactic effects, intersected with ethnic considerations — considerations which deterred southern voters from turning to “non-southern parties and candidates (such as MCP and UTM)” as presidential and parliamentary alternatives. As a result, the number of voters in the southern region who registered to vote, and who showed up to vote on polling day was significantly depressed.
In the other two regions, especially the central and, to a slightly lesser extent, the north; voter registration was much higher, indicating great excitement among largely non-DPP voters to cast a kind of referendum ballot against the DPP government due to the same concerns about corruption, PwA abductions and murders, and regional and ethnic considerations as well. (Ntcheu, for example, which tends to swing among southern parties voted overwhelmingly for the UTM in support of its presidential candidate Saulos Chilima who is also from that district.)
Since the central region was the first region to be registered for voting, the vast majority of voters in that region would have been registering to vote for the MCP (as confirmed in the just ended election) because the UTM was not yet fully in the picture as a party during that time. But following the close battle between the MCP and the UTM in the north, beginning with Mzimba all the way to Chitipa and Karonga at the very northern tip of Malawi, plus the domination of the MCP in its traditional stronghold (the central region including in lilongwe district), if the courts do order a rerun, voters in these two regions are likely to pile behind the MCP to push it over the line — despite a good amount of them, particularly in the north, preferring the UTM.
The forgoing is crucial for understanding the critical question of why the MCP and the UTM continue to pursue seemingly similar legal battles to annul the elections in the Malawian courts separately. MCP is likely to file for a nullification of the election without requesting the courts to order an entirely new voter registration exercise in preparation for a new election by MEC. (In short, a re-run!)
Because UTM only truly started campaigning as a party after much of the voter registration had been completed, the voter’s roll as it stands creates a dynamic that would favor the MCP. The UTM on the other hand is likely to request that the courts not only annul the results of the 2019 election but also that an order is issued to begin an entirely new registration exercise so as to attract many of its voters into the electoral process to significantly improve its electoral performance. I am skeptical as to whether another 1 million voters could be brought in to help UTM usurp both the MCP and the DPP, but it would definitely improve their showing especially in parliament. That being so, the narrow margins between MCP and DPP at the last count will have an impact on voters; MCP will be seen as a less risky option especially if the goal is to out-vote the southern region which will probably turn out in large numbers should a new registration exercise be ordered by the courts. (With the total capitulation of the United Democratic Front — UDF under the weight of years of political mismanagement, the eastern region of Malawi might turn to the UTM. Once more, regional considerations will influence voters; the MCP is unlikely to garner nationally significant votes from there.)
Thus the reluctance of the two parties to work together makes sense for electoral politics.
But we will see. I remain skeptical that the Malawi Judiciary would overturn or annul an election: it is an extremely incrementalist institution with a very traditionalist and conservative reading and interpretation of the law (I say this bearing in mind a 2014 High Court judgement which failed to see the undemocratic nature of a law that forces MEC to announce results of an election within a stipulated 8 day period without exceptions even when MEC itself is unable to verify if the said results are credible — mind boggling).
But perhaps the evidence brought before them in separate applications by the MCP and UTM legal teams will be so overwhelming as to compel them against their institutional customs. (Also judicial conservatism in Malawi has been pragmatic: it has enabled the courts to maintain a tenuous independence from political and governmental pressures.)
We shall see. (Or perhaps, we shall not see.)