On June 23, Malawians went to the polls for the second time in a year to elect a president. The election was held under difficult circumstances, forcing the election commission, citizen observers and the voting public to balance public health and safety during COVID-19, a compressed schedule and uncertainty due to ongoing legal disputes. Despite these challenges, citizen observers commended the election commission and Malawians for holding a smooth and peaceful election day.
Malawi had a presidential election in 2019. While election day came and went without significant issues, the vote counting and tallying process was marred by numerous problems with the complexity of the forms, arithmetic errors and more. These problems were widely shared on social media, and led to persistent, widespread protests over the quality of the elections. After a legal challenge and thorough review, the Constitutional Court of Malawi annulled the 2019 presidential results, and mandated a new election within 150 days. By the time an appeals process concluded, only 60 days remained to prepare.
With such a short period available, civil society organizations and the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) faced a number of challenges. Notably:
A month before election day, the Malawi Election Commission (MEC) appointed a new Chairman and new commissioners.
The MEC also faced an enormous budget shortfall, and had not yet printed ballots or established new polling and tallying procedures.
COVID-19 cases were increasing.
What’s more, NDI’s civil society partners -- Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP), Public Affairs Committee (PAC) and National Initiative for Civic Education (NICE) -- were just starting to work together as a coalition for the first time to observe the elections.
To bring together the civil society coalition to observe the election and speak with one voice, NDI provided technical assistance to the three groups to develop a harmonized approach to election observation. NDI shared best practices, like using an SMS reporting system to reduce costs; uniform checklists and incidents forms; and training plans and deployment methodologies. NDI also worked with the coalition to train and prepare their observers nationwide, handing out masks, hand sanitizers and reminders to social distance.
In addition to technical assistance, NDI launched a voter education campaign to inform Malawains about the election and encourage them to go to the polls. Another public messaging campaign was also launched to prevent electoral violence. NDI aired 15 radio spots in English and Chichewa, adapted from MEC’s approved materials, on private radio stations and on CCJP and PAC’s, community radio networks. NDI also developed six radio messages calling for a peaceful election day; a call-in show on elections and violence prevention; and a video with cross-party members of Parliament’s youth caucus highlighting their desire for a peaceful and credible election.
In the days before the election, with the public voter education campaign in full swing, the civil society coalition established a situation room in Blantyre and a data data center in Lilongwe to analyze SMS data. The situation room was staffed by MEC members, security officials and other stakeholders to respond to incidents on election day.
Despite significant challenges in the lead-up to the presidential election, NDI and partner organizations quickly adapted their programming to meet a rapidly evolving situation. NDI worked with its partners to develop new approaches, adapt training and observation practices for COVID-19 and gather information from observers. With the conclusion of the presidential elections, Malawians will have a new administration in office and will need to work together over the next five years to hold it accountable.
NDI's work in Malawi is implemented with the support of the Consortium for Elections and Political Process Strengthening (CEPPS) and the Department for International Development (DFID).
Author: Rishi Datta, Resident Country Director for Malawi