Malawi braces for court ruling on disputed presidential vote

BLANTYRE, Malawi (AP) — Security is tight and diplomats are urging calm as a court in Malawi prepares to rule Monday on last year’s disputed presidential election that led to deadly confrontations and widespread unrest.

The long-peaceful southern African nation has never had a presidential vote overturned, but the two opposition candidates who teamed up for a legal challenge are hoping the Constitutional Court will agree with their allegations of irregularities and order a new vote.

President Peter Mutharika was declared the narrow winner of the May election with 38% of votes, followed by Lazarus Chakwera with 35% and former vice president Saulos Chilima third with 20%. The four other candidates collectively got nearly 6%.

The five-judge panel has heard arguments that the vote was rigged by the president and electoral commission. Both have denied it.

Malawi’s electoral commission acknowledged receiving 147 reports alleging irregularities including the use of correction fluid to alter some results.

The two opposition candidates alleged that the irregularities affected over 1.4 million of the total 5.1 million votes cast.

Mutharika and the electoral commission acknowledges some irregularities but argued they were insufficient to affect the election’s outcome.

The months-long court case has been accompanied by sometimes violent street protests demanding the resignation of electoral commission chairwoman Jane Ansah. The Malawi Human Rights Commission late last year released a report accusing the police of serious human rights abuses, including rape and assault, in one confrontation.

The judges themselves have come under pressure. In January, Malawi’s anti-corruption bureau arrested businessman Thom Mpinganjira, who was accused of approaching two judges with an offer of $135,000 to sway justice in favor of the president. The chief justice issued an official complaint to the bureau.

Mpinganjira was later released, however, after a magistrate in another court issued an order quashing the arrest warrant. The High Court then overturned that ruling, questioning the lower court’s conduct and ordering Mpinganjira’s arrest.

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With tensions high, private media groups such as the Media Institute of Southern Africa Malawi and Media Council of Malawi have urged journalists to avoid coverage that has the potential to perpetrate hatred and incite violence.

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The two opposition candidates in recent days also have called for calm.

On Thursday, Chilima urged Malawians to remain peaceful before and after the ruling and challenged Mutharika to show the qualities of a true statesman.

Chilima also asked the Malawi Police Service, which has been supported by the military as unrest grew, to stop thugs who may want to take advantage of any public outcry when Monday’s ruling is announced.

“There is more that binds us than that which separates us,” he said. “Violence and civil strife are alien to this land. We must not lose this gem. It is what defines us a people.”

Security across the country was tightened over the weekend. The Malawi Defense Force commander, Gen. Vincent Nundwe, has said soldiers are ready to work with police to maintain peace.

The international community, including the United Nations and African Union, has issued several statements ahead of the vote urging people across Malawi to uphold the rule of law and remain calm.

A joint statement by diplomats from the United States, Britain, the European Union, Japan and others acknowledged the tensions around the ruling.

“Malawi can draw on an impressive history of institutions and leaders stepping forward to safeguard your democracy and ensure peaceful resolution for internal tensions,” the statement said, urging all parties to respect the court’s decision — as well as the right to appeal.

“For those who choose to exercise their right to demonstrate, we urge you to do so peacefully and legally, and for security personnel to proceed with balance and restraint,” it added.

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