Malawi: Summary of the ECF Report on the 1999 Elections

Updated June 1999

The Electoral Commissions Forum (ECF) of SADC countries was invited by the chairperson of the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) to send a team of observers to the 15 June 1999 Parliamentary and Presidential elections to observe and assess all the relevant aspects of their conduct. The ultimate role of the observer team was to make recommendations in order to assist the MEC as well as other electoral stakeholders to ameliorate the conduct of elections in their country.

The ECF was officially launched in July 1998 in Cape Town in South Africa and comprises 14 electoral commissions of the SADC region. The Forum aims to foster co-operation between its members with a view to promoting a culture of democracy in SADC countries. Areas of co-operation include:

  • sharing experiences, expertise and, where possible, election material;
  • exchanging ideas on voter education, the conduct of cost-effective elections and the training of officials; and
  • engaging in capacity-building programmes which assist in delivering transparent, free and fair elections.

This was the third mission of the ECF Observer Team. Previous missions took place in Lesotho in mid-May 1998 and South Africa in early June 1999.

The membership of the team sent to Malawi was drawn from the region's electoral commissions, universities, research institutions, non-governmental organisations and a government department. They served in their individual capacities and not as representatives of their respective countries, governments or organisations.

The Team was briefed about the electoral process by the MEC, its Secretariat, leaders of the contesting political parties, representatives of the media, NGOs, university lecturers and other relevant groups and individuals. It was deployed in the three regions of Malawi before and on polling day to observe the polling and counting operations.

The ECF issued a report and forwarded it to the Malawi Electoral Commission, the political parties which contested the elections, and to all electoral commission members of the ECF. Copies were made available to other interested parties in Malawi and abroad.

The 1999 Malawi general elections have been a difficult exercise. Firstly, the re-composition of the entire MEC and its Secretariat, posed problems given that the elections were to be conducted by officials who possessed virtually no experience in election management. Second, the elections took place in a context of mistrust between the Electoral Commission, on the one hand, and the politicians, civil society groups, the media and segments of the electorate, on the other. These interested parties repeatedly questioned the independence and impartiality of the MEC. More importantly, there was mistrust among the electoral commissioners themselves because they had been divided along political lines. As a result of these factors, some aspects of the electoral process were not managed properly.

Nonetheless, we were pleased to observe a number of positive achievements:

  • High voter turnout (the official voter turnout rate is not yet available);
  • Voters were disciplined and many arrived at the polling stations as early as 03.00 a.m., which shows their commitment to electoral democracy;
  • High sense of responsibility displayed by the polling staff;
  • Good representation of women among the polling officials;
  • High degree of dedication displayed by the returning officers in the districts; and
  • Adequate presence of security forces at most polling centres.

The following recommendations were made to the MEC, electoral stakeholders and decision-makers:

  • Some continuity should be maintained in the composition of the Electoral Commission and its Secretariat. We also recommended the establishment of an independent electoral commission, whose members shall be non-partisan, reputed for their independence and competence. We have also suggested that the MEC needs to improve its public relations policy, and communicate effectively with all the concerned parties.
  • The process of voter registration should have only started once all the materials and equipment had been received. This would have ensured simultaneous registration throughout the country. The policy of moving registration from one area to another to circumvent the shortage of materials and equipment proved to be ineffective even after the registration period was extended.
  • The MEC should issue media guidelines earlier so that the campaign messages of all the contesting parties are broadcast by the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation, the state-owned radio station.
  • The MEC should address the problem of under-age voters.
  • The voting procedure should be shortened in future elections by printing presidential and parliamentary ballot papers in different colours. These will be given to the voters together. The voter will then mark both ballot papers and deposit them in their respective boxes. This will speed up the procedure and help to remind voters to cast their vote in the presidential election.
  • Voting areas should be located indoors rather than outdoors. When it rained in some parts of the country, the ensuing chaos and confusion wasted time and compromised the secrecy of the vote.
  • In the future, civil society leaders should better distribute their responsibilities so that while some concentrate on lobbying electoral decision-makers to create an environment conducive to free and fair elections, others can carry on with voter education.
  • The elections were marred by many cases of intimidation, violence and other irregularities. In a democratic election the voter is the winner and should be given due respect. Parties and candidates that resort to this behaviour should be penalised; hence the need for a code of conduct and mechanisms for its enforcement.