Op-Ed: Malawi – Intransigent Mutharika raises the temperature

By François Conradie – Senior Political Economist

President Peter Mutharika is using his office to thwart the decision by the Constitutional Court to annul the results of the May 2019 election in which he was re-elected, and to direct government to hold a fresh election.

After Parliament approved some changes to electoral legislation in line with the Court’s directive that presidential elections should henceforth be won by absolute majority rather than relative majority, Mr Mutharika used his veto power on Tuesday, March 17, and refused to ratify Parliament’s changes.

A spokesperson for the presidency said that, in the president’s opinion, the proposed changes are unconstitutional.

Mr Mutharika’s appeal against the original Constitutional Court ruling is still pending; the ruling in the appeal case is expected in April.

This is the most dramatic move to block the implementation of the Constitutional Court ruling, and it comes in conjunction with a few other moves by the head of state that are of a nature to cause concern.

Also on Tuesday, Mr Mutharika fired the chief commander of the Malawi Defence Force, General Vincent Nundwe, and replaced him with former air force commander Major General Andrew Lapken Namathanga.

General Nundwe had been appointed in June and was widely popular for his men’s handling of protests over last year’s election: on several occasions, soldiers came between protesters and police officers whose repression of marches was turning violent, so the army was praised for being on the side of the people.

General Nundwe will be “assigned to other duties in the public service”, in the words of the statement from the presidency.

The deputy commander of the defence force was also replaced and a number of senior officers received promotions.

An unnamed senior officer who spoke to AFP said that Mr Mutharika’s intention with the move is to “put people who work for his interests and from his home area” in positions to advance his personal and political interests.

Mr Mutharika has already given the army the order to use force against protesters participating in a planned march to State House on Wednesday, March 25.

On Friday, March 13, Mr Mutharika dissolved his Cabinet.

The move came a few weeks after his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) formed an alliance with the United Democratic Front (UDF), in order to bolster the challenge from the two most important opposition parties, the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and the United Transformation Movement (UTM).

He has made explicit his intention to make the Cabinet bigger: since 2014, the year of his first election, he has stuck to a promise he made in the campaign ahead of that poll to limit the size of Cabinet to 20 ministers.

Sympathetic commentators say that the relatively more robust health of the economy means he can now name a team of up to 30. His intention is probably to give more portfolios to the UDF to bolster his alliance.

On Tuesday, his spokesperson said he had decided on a new team and would announce it “soon”. In the interim, all ministerial powers vest in the president.

A rough few weeks lie ahead. It seems as though Mr Mutharika’s plan is to delay the new election for as long as possible, but he does seem to have accepted that it will go ahead, hence his focus on the new Cabinet and the alliance with the UDF.

As the new campaign starts, we will expect protests and for the overhauled army to be as forceful as the police in dealing with them. The voting itself will not be less suspect than that of last May, and if he wins, his legitimacy will be in question.

We had been hopeful about the outcome of the Constitutional Court ruling, but the president’s intransigence is reason to fear an increase in risk.

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