Malawians will be electing a president, law makers and local government leaders on May 20th. This is the fifth election since the country returned to plural politics in 1994. One would wonder why it is important for the Open Society Foundations to be concerned about the integrity of elections in Malawi given its minimal geo-political significance compared to countries such as Nigeria, DRC, South Africa, Egypt, etc. Yet Malawians deserve no less an opportunity to exert popular control on national decision making by exercising real choice to elect their representatives.
OSISA is supporting interventions that aim to promote citizens to engage with the electoral process as well as defending the people’s will and mandate. OSISA has supported presidential debates, a first in Southern Africa, and the Malawi Elections Information Centre – the local version of the Elections Situation Room. The presidential debates have galvanized animated debates about what the different parties represent. Sadly though the sitting president, Mrs Joyce Banda chose not to participate.
The situation room has created a vibrant platform for civil society organizations to undertake domestic monitoring of elections. Monitoring of elections by local organizations is increasingly becoming an important aspect of elections with integrity. OSF investments aimed at promoting the Elections Situation Room as a model for civil society to monitor elections need to be consolidated through learning, documentation of best practices, and development of toolkits that can be used across the continent. The Malawi Elections Information Centre is using mobile telephony for voters to verify their registration status, transmit Election Day observation data, and facilitate citizens to engage in citizen journalism by filing reports using SMSes.
The election will be a close contest between the four leading presidential candidates and their respective parties. Recent opinion polls indicate that the outcome is too close to call. Despite challenges regarding institutional capacities and resources, levels of tolerance and transparency are impressive. The campaign period has been very robust and without major incidents of violence.
Going around Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial capital, I discovered that the drinking holes that are an important feature of Blantyre have been turned into extremely vibrant election situation rooms. Real time analysis, probably not as empirically based as one would want, is provided amidst the imbibing. It may be worthwhile to harvest some lessons learned from this version of the situation room.
I also came across a rather outlandish form of campaigning. As I was documenting the version of the situation room I described earlier, an unmistakably inebriated patron stumbled into the vibrant situation room and vocalized some issues in vernacular at the top of his unsteady voice. I could only pick up the repeated word “tickets”. I was also handed a flyer presumably of an independent candidate standing for the Blantyre City Centre Ward in the local elections. After he had left I asked the barman what it had all been about. He explained that the campaigner had been telling the patrons that the flyers could also double up as tickets for the Africa Cup of Nations qualifier match between Malawi and Chad that will be played tomorrow.
Initially I thought wow ……. what an ingenious way to campaign. On reflection however, I saw that this approach could seriously backfire since it was quite clear that the flyers would not gain anyone access to anywhere. Upon discovering this some gullible patrons could be really upset with the candidate. I am sure the candidate had not sanctioned this form of innovation to his campaign. Everyone was accepting the flyers and the creative campaigner left with a smug expression of satisfaction etched on his face. As I left this situation room I found the creative campaigner being helped up. He had fallen face down but was forcefully arguing that in fact he had not fallen down; it was the ground that had come to his face!