Malawi: Voter apathy hits local elections

David Pottie, September 2000

As South Africa heads to its own local government elections in a climate of concern over the prospects of low voter turnout, its neighbour to the north has fallen victim to widespread abstention on their election day. Malawi held its first ever democratic local elections on November 21 but the elections were marred by opposition party allegations of unfair practices and extremely low voter turnout.

The ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) has won 610 of the 860 contested local ward seats. The Malawi Congress Party (MCP), senior party in an opposition alliance with Alliance for Democracy (AFORD), came a distant third with only 84 seats. AFORD candidates won 120 seats. A total of 1 860 candidates were competing across all wards.

No poll was held in 131 wards where candidates were unopposed. Here too UDF dominated, with 115 candidates declared winners in uncontested seats. Thus nearly a quarter of the total seats went uncontested.

But perhaps the biggest concern is the low voter turnout with only 14.2% of the over 5.2 million registered voters casting their ballots.

Observers report that the elections have been characterised by lacklustre campaigns and low-key voter education (SAPA-AFP 2000). According to the electoral commission spokesperson, Fergus Lipenga, "There are widespread complaints that the civic education campaign that preceded the election was not very effective. Most prospective voters do not understand what the new system will entail and decided to abstain" (UN Integrated Regional Information Network 2000). The Chair of the Malawi Electoral Commission, Justice James Kalaile exonerated the commission from any responsibility for the low turnout, maintaining that opposition parties simply failed to get out their message.

Voter turnout was so poor that in the north only one voter turned up at a polling station with over 4 000 registered voters while voting stations around Blantyre were reported to have fewer than 20% of voters cast their ballots. The Electoral Commission opened nearly 5 000 polling stations in 3 373 polling centres across the country.

However, the low voter turnout can also be blamed on a series of political scandals that have soured public attitudes towards Malawi's politicians.

These are the first democratic local elections and they are unfolding against a history of national control over local leaders, budgets and decision-making. Malawi has not held local government elections since the first multi-party parliamentary elections in 1994. Soon after taking office President Muluzi of the UDF dissolved all local councils and fired their leaders, alleging they were loyalists of former president for life, Hastings Banda (African Eye News Service 2000a). Following the elections local councils will for the first time be able to levy taxes and budget their own expenditures. One expected that all parties and their supporters would have greeted this decentralisation of political authority with enthusiastic participation.

But the immediate pre-election period has also been marred by a seemingly endless array of scandals and protests. First, President Bakili Muluzi fired his entire cabinet on November 2 following growing accusations of corruption and mismanagement. Britain, Transparency International, the IMF, World Bank and local human rights organisations called for drastic changes. Among them, the government's purchase of 39 top of the line Mercedes Benz limousines for cabinet members and an education department scandal in which cabinet ministers benefited from privileged tenders involving US$2 million (Mail and Guardian 2000). Three of the sacked ministers, including the education minister, face arrest following investigations by the Anti-Corruption Bureau of Malawi for their alleged role in the education department affair.

The new cabinet was quickly announced, and rather than trimming the size of his cabinet as demanded by many of Muluzi's critics, he increased the cabinet by two to number 25 ministers and ten deputies.

References

SAPA-AFP 2000, November 20.

AFRICAN EYE NEWS SERVICE 2000a, November 2.

MAIL AND GUARDIAN 2000, November 3-9.

UN INTEGRATED REGIONAL INFORMATION NETWORK 2000, November 22.