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Malawi’s new president calls for unity after disputed vote re-run

Malawi’s newly elected President Lazarus Chakwera vowed Sunday to maintain unity in the southern African country after quashing the incumbent’s bid for a second term in the re-run of a hotly contested election.

It was a dramatic twist of fortune for outgoing president Peter Mutharika, whose victory in a May 2019 ballot was overturned by the Constitutional Court over fraud allegations.

Chakwera, a former evangelist preacher, was declared the winner of the election replay with almost 59 percent of the vote, according to results announced late Saturday.

Malawi is only the second sub-Saharan African country to have presidential poll results overturned in court, after Kenya in 2017.

It is also the first time in the region that a vote re-run has led to the defeat of an incumbent leader.

The election was hailed by leaders across the continent as a peaceful transition of power.

“It is an honour forged in the furnace of your desire and your demand for change,” Chakwera said after taking his oath of office.

Addressing thousands of supporters in Lilongwe’s Freedom Square, the 65-year-old vowed to restore “faith in the possibility of having a government that serves” and “fights for you”.

He appealed to those who did not vote for him, saying: “Malawi is home to you too… so long as I am its president, you too will prosper.”

– ‘Impossible feat’ –

Chakwera leads Malawi’s oldest party, the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), which previously ruled from 1964 to 1994 under Hastings Banda’s one-party rule.

Some 6.8 million Malawians returned to the polls on Tuesday after the country’s top court found the first election had been marred by “grave” and “widespread irregularities” — including the use of correction fluid to tamper with result sheets.

Chakwera was pronounced the winner with 2.6 million votes against 1.75 million for Mutharika. Turnout was just under 65 percent.

In power since 2014, Mutharika won 38 percent of the discredited vote last year, ahead of Chakwera’s 35 percent.

“Today is unbelievable because this feat seemed impossible just a month ago,” said Christina Nkosi, a supporter of the opposition United Transformation Movement whose leader Saulos Chilima was sworn in as vice president.

“We have waited too long for this dawn,” echoed 70-year-old Mary Kaponda, a retired nurse sporting MCP garb.

IT expert Daud Suleman, a key witness in the election court case, told AFP: “We have made history and demonstrated how much we can achieve as a people.

“Now the challenge will be to challenge this energy into moving the country forward.”

Around half of landlocked Malawi’s 18 million people live below the poverty line. Many rely on subsistence farming.

The country is also grappling with a coronavirus outbreak that has infected over 1,000 people and killed at least 13 — although numbers are widely thought to be underestimated due to lack of testing.

– All complaints ‘resolved’ –

Mutharika, 79, has not yet commented on his defeat.

On Saturday, he had argued the re-run was flawed — citing violence and intimidation against monitors allegedly “beaten, hacked and abducted”, and describing the vote as the “worst in Malawi’s history”.

The Malawi Electoral Commission dismissed the accusations and said all complaints had been “resolved”.

But Mutharika’s Democratic Progressive Party has reiterated calls for the commission to annul the results of the second vote and declare a third poll, something political analysts doubt will happen.

Mutharika supporter Tay Grin was accepting of the outcome.

“Our political choices might be different but we remain united knowing that friendship means much more.”

– ‘Very clear’ lesson –

Several African leaders and politicians congratulated Chakwera.

“The mandate our Malawi brothers and sisters have given you… is a confirmation of their desire for progressive leadership,” Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta said.

Kenya’s former prime minister Raila Odinga — who lost to the incumbent in the 2017 re-run — commended Mutharika for facilitating a “peaceful and orderly transfer of power”.

“The election was followed keenly beyond Malawi and is a symbol of hope for those who support democracy in Africa and around the world,” he tweeted.

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, also African Union chairman, “congratulated the people of Malawi for conducting peaceful elections which have served to deepen democracy,” according to a presidency statement.

Tanzania’s opposition Alliance for Change and Transparency (ACT Wazalendo) said Malawi had given a “very clear” lesson ahead of the east African country’s own elections in October.

“Authoritarian and repressive governments can be beaten when the opposition unites,” its leader Zitto Kabwe said.

“President-elect Chakwera’s election victory is an important moment for democracy in the African continent.”