Internet shutdown, disputed results and protests surround general elections

On 21st May 2019, six million Malawians went to the polls to cast their votes for the president, parliament and local councils. In a hotly contested presidential poll, Peter Mutharika, leader of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), retained his seat by a narrow margin after garnering 38.57% of the votes. Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) garnered 35.41%, losing the poll to Mutharika by 159,000 votes.

The results were however strongly disputed by the opposition candidates Lazarus Chakwera and Saulos Chilima, who finished second and third in the election respectively. Chakwera, who had warned of attempts to rig the election, said his party’s own count showed that he was leading after the total vote tally. The other presidential contender, Malawi’s Vice President Saulos Chilima, also called for results to be annulled over “serious anomalies” reported during the count.

The two opposition leaders filed a case in court to challenge Mutharika’s re-election on alleged vote fraud. On 22nd June 2019 it was reported that the High Court had rejected President Mutharika’s application to dismiss the case filed by the opposition challenging the elections, thus allowing the case to proceed to full trial. On 8th August, the Constitutional Court began hearing the case, whose proceedings will be broadcast live on radio and TV stations (audio option only). 

Following the announcement of the election results, between June and August, protestors took to the streets in major cities to protest the disputed presidential election results. In mid June, the protesting opposition supporters called on the president to resign on account of rigged elections. They also faulted the Malawi Electoral Commission for failing to address election related complaints and demanded the resignation of the commission’s chairperson, Jane Ansah, who they accused of having a “scandalous approach and stubborn attitude” in managing voters’ concerns. The protesters delivered a petition to the president’s office in Lilongwe. Opposition candidates Lazarus Chakwera and Saulos Chilima also joined the protests. In Blantyre, the police clashed with protestors who tore down and burned billboards showing the president’s image.

A day earlier, police had clashed with protesters who blocked a road in Lilongwe which president Mutharika was meant to use on his way to parliament, forcing his motorcade to use an alternative route. 

In a separate incident, on 24th July 2019, police and striking judiciary support staff comprising court marshals, clerks, messengers and cleaners engaged in running battles as the police lobbed teargas to disperse a sit-in that had been staged by the staff outside the High Court in Blantyre. The staff who had announced the strike a day earlier, demanded better working conditions, specifically demanding that the parliament be the sole body approving their conditions of service. They also demanded the resignation of the Chief Justice and the Registrar of the High Court and Supreme Court for failing to address their grievances.

On 31st July however, it was reported that the striking staff members had resumed work for fear of reprisal after some of them received letters summoning them to a disciplinary hearing. The judiciary had declared the strike illegal as it had not been called for by the union, as is the procedure, and the union had not engaged management on the issue.

Expression

On 18th May 2019, the Director General of the Malawi Communication Regulatory Authority (MACRA), Godfrey Itaye, called for a meeting to discuss the government’s attempts to shut down access to social media sites during the general elections scheduled for 21st May 2019. It was also reported that the government had attempted to pressure telecommunication providers to shut down the internet during the elections. Following the meeting, Vice President Saulos Chilima commended MACRA lawyers for resisting efforts by the government to shut down the internet.

On the evening of election day, half an hour after counting of votes began, it was reported that internet providers experienced interruptions which led to internet outages in parts of the country. Connectivity fell to 80% of normal levels across the country, causing an outage that lasted for several hours. Local media sources also reported radio and television network outages in parts of the country.

Advocacy groups suspected that the outages may have been linked to the government.

Alp Toker, Director of NetBlocks, a digital advocacy group said:

“Disruptions affecting two ordinarily reliable telecommunications networks in Malawi have already been documented since polls closed yesterday… Authorities should ensure that critical systems are safeguarded and that the public remains informed throughout the process of vote counting and collation.”