A civil resistance success story: how the people of Malawi led a historic victory for democracy

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Malawi just swore in its new leader, President Lazarus Chakwera. He won a rerun election, unseating the incumbent, former President Peter Mutharika.  Mutharika had been in office since 2014, two years after his brother, President Bingu Mutharika’s demise in office. 

In May 2019, elections were held in Malawi. Sitting President Mutharika was re-elected in an election declared by external observers to be free and fair. A position the people of Malawi disputed,stating that the process lacked credibility. 

However, better than anticipated, the determination of the people of Malawi led to the country’s opposition party’s win in the rerun election, declared on 27 June 2020. This road to electoral justice, was a story of resilience and resistance. Here are a few occurrences that were instrumental to the peoples’ victory:

The Judiciary Resisted

Through a unanimous ruling in February 2020, Malawi’s Constitutional Court declared the election of 2019 invalid, as it had been marred by widespread irregularities, which had severely compromised the integrity of the results. The court ordered a rerun election to be held within 150 days, declaring that the winner must have an absolute majority (of 50% +1). A decision which was upheld by Malawi’s Supreme Court of Appeal. 

The ruling was unprecedented and significant. It was the first time a presidential election had been legally challenged in Malawi since the country’s independence in 1964, and its first presidential election to be overturned. 

Judges of the Constitutional Court Panel (Source: Idriss A. Nassah / Twitter)

Despite intimidation, the judiciary pushed back on the interference by then President Mutharika, who sought to send the Chief Justice of Malawi on leave, in a ploy to forcefully retire him. They issued a press release and also pursued a lawsuit contesting the executive’s decision. The judiciary resisted, upholding the rule of law, standing for the integrity of the electoral process, and buttressing the importance of the separation of powers. 

Civil Society Groups Resisted 

The Malawi Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) organized several pro-democracy demonstrations from 2019 up until June 2020, with some activists being arrested.

Photo credit: (Friends of HRDC Malawi/ Twitter)
Photo credit: (AFP/Amos Gumulira)

Malawi’s Lawyers marched for judicial independence, pushing back against the interference by President Mutharika. The Malawi Law Society, the HRDC, as well as other civil rights activists and organisations, filed an application challenging the President’s attempts to send the Chief Justice of the country on leave, and wrote a statement condemning the interference.

Photo credit: (Friends of HRDC Malawi/ Twitter)

The Malawi Law Society, the HRDC, and the Magistrates and Judges Association of Malawi, were granted a court order, refraining the government from removing the Chief Justice. 

In defiance of the Malawi Police’s statement regarding the rerun election, the HRDC released a counter-statement encouraging the population to peacefully and vigilantly watch ballot boxes and the tallying of votes. They encouraged voters to guard their votes and ensure oversight over the electoral process. 

Other civil society organizations (CSOs) in Malawi also formed an Election Observation Consortium, which self-observed the election in the country.

The People Resisted

From protests, to following the court’s decisions, the guarding of votes, marches by women’s rights groups, staying up late to watch the vote counts and tallying process; the people of Malawi were resolute.

It is important to note that even before the election, there had been widespread protests in Malawi since 2019, over various issues.

The Military Resisted

The military provided security for the judges who presided over the election cases. When pro-democracy protesters were faced with police violence, the army moved in to protect them. This led to the sack of the Malawian Army Commander, General Vincent Nundwe. 

The military’s defence of democracy was instrumental to the people’s win.

Judge Kamanga (Photo credit: Amos Gumulira/AFP; Al jazeera.com)
The military guards protesters (Photo credit: Ras Kansengwa)
Photo credit: (Friends of HRDC Malawi/ Twitter)

Overall, the general resolve in Malawi scored many wins, including the firm buttress and protection of the judiciary’s independence, the resignation of Malawi’s Electoral Commissioner (a main demand by protesters), and most notably, the decisive win of the opposition and the unseating of an incumbent president. 

With the new government of President Lazarus Chakwera, CSOs have already outlined their expectations. They have ensured the incoming administration is aware of the strength of their collective resilience. 

This recent happening in Malawi, is an example of effective and successful people power and resistance.


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This blog post was written by African Regional Associate, Nnenna Mazi, and edited by Education and Communications Associate, Sabrina Sanchez.

Featured photo borrowed from@tkaydrifts, Twitter.

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