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Why postpone elections?

26 May 2011

It was just announced by the Malawi Electoral Commission that the local elections that were supposed to occur last month (previously postponed from November 2010) will be postponed again to the next Presidential/Legislative election scheduled for 2014.

letter from Malawi Electoral Commission postponing elections

From an article in the Maravi Post:

In a brief statement, the electoral body statement “the decision by government to postpone the elections has been arrived at following consultations with President Bingu wa Mutharika”.

No reasons were given for the postponement of the much-anticipated elections.

This development comes in the wake of cries for the local polls from religious and civil society leaders as well as opposition leaders. Malawians have only gone to the polls for the local polls only once – in 2000 – since the southern African country re-introduced multiparty elections in 1994.

There has been little reporting on the postponement of the local polls (there is another article in the Nyasa Times and the story was briefly written up by the AP). Of what has been written, nothing has been said about why the elections might have been postponed.

Of course, the most recent previous delay was due to the president’s suspension of the electoral commission, only reinstated 20 days before the elections were scheduled to be held. The president suspended the commission alleging massive fraud totalling 1.4 billion Kwacha (150 kwacha = 1 USD). Ultimately, the president’s accusations of massive fraud seem unfounded, at least as reported by the oppositional Nyasa Times:

Mutharika played tricks by closing EC [the electoral commission] on May 3 2010 lying to the nation that K1.4 billion was misappropriated.

Auditor General quashed Mutharika’s claims saying no money missed at the EC and said it was only K467 million which was misappropriated.

Spokesperson of the AG, Timothy Sandramu, said money did not miss as previously communicated by Office of President and Cabinet but it was spent without supporting documents.

During the fraud investigation, analysts described the inquiry as a strategy for eventually postponing elections.

But again, no one has said why the elections were postponed, or more specifically, no one has provided potential explanations about what motivates the president to continue to postpone them. One answer is, simply: the president has something to lose. If local elections were held, the president would cede authority over local assemblies. According to the Local Government Act of 1998, local assemblies are supposed to consist of popularly elected ward councillors, traditional authorities, members of parliament located in the respective districts, and five non-voting members appointed by the assembly. Because there have not been popular elections for the ward councillor positions, as it stands now, local assemblies consist of government appointees (and non-voting traditional authorities). Local assemblies have considerable power: they formulate local policy and make important decisions about local economic development and spending, including building new health clinics and roads. (In a later post, I will share just how much money gets spent at the local level, but the short description is: a lot.)

The president might be willing to cede authority over local government if his party were expected to do well in the local elections. Despite Mutharika’s landslide victory (66% of the vote) in the 2009 presidential and parliamentary election (in which his party, the DPP, won 113 or 59% of the 192 seats in parliament), currently there is a great deal of political tension and concern about Mutharika’s rule. The UK has suspended all new aid to Malawi following a diplomatic row, the president has been compared to the former dictator, and there are general concerns about declining governance and human rights conditions in the country. All of this is happening in a context where foreign exchange and fuel shortages have seriously impacted the everyday lives of Malawians, as have delayed payments of civil servants. Though there isn’t any polling data available on Malawians’ evaluation of the president’s performance, suffice it to say that he’s likely not as popular as he was when re-elected in 2009.

Though disappointing, it is not surprising that local elections in Malawi will again be postponed.

To learn the basics of local government in Malawi, read this primer by the Commonwealth Local Government Forum (no publication date given, but written before the 2009 elections).

For a comprehensive overview of the 2009 elections in Malawi, read this note published in Electoral Studies.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. kondwani zulu permalink
    26 May 2011 7:55 pm

    the following me be the reasons:

    1.the president wants as much power centralised as possible, local elections would allow many decisions taken at local assemblies that may undermine his agenda.

    2.these elections were due in 2005. the closing of the electoral commission failed to work to derail the electoral process due to pressure from many quarters especially with the MCC withholding $350m in january. MCC has released that money. and there is still not information released on the findings of the fraud investigations, but in due course we will know.

    3. the dpp govt is now unpopular and may lose control of local councils to opposition. the president would not want that.

    4. the president is just crazy. there have been several bizarre decisions he has made and this is one of them.


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