A RECENT REPORT BY THE INSTITUTE FOR SECURITY STUDIES (ISS) ARGUES THAT MADAGASCAR AND CABO VERDE HAVE EVENED OUT THE ELECTORAL PLAYING FIELD FOR ALL PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFULS BY LEGISLATING THE STEPPING DOWN OF AN INCUMBENT PRESIDENT PRIOR TO PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS.
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These two cases are singled out as they are anomalies in Africa’s political landscape, which is marred by what the ISS’s report has termed ‘Incumbency Abuse’.
In Malawi; no elected president had ever lost a re-election, since the nation became a democracy in 1993; until this year when Peter Muntharika lost to opposition leader Lazarus Chakwera. Often, incumbents have won by a meagre percentage (38.57% in 2019, 36.4% in 2014) not representing the choice of the majority of the eligible voters.
While the First-Past-The-Post electoral system partly explains this, a large reason for these candidates being re-elected as opposed to an opposition candidate winning the election is the incumbency advantage their position gives them to garner resources for political campaigning.
The report highlights that mandating presidents seeking re-election to step down before going to the polls removes an acting president’s access to state resources for political campaign uses.
In 2015, Malawi’s then deputy Mayor for Mzuzu City, Frazer Chunga, was cited in an article by The Times Group saying his official car had been grabbed by the regional committee for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), of which former President Peter Muntharika heads, for campaigning use.
Such abuses would be easily mitigated by legislating the mandatory stepping down of a president seeking re-election prior to elections. Additionally, this would put all candidates on par, with the exception of an incumbent being able to show what developmental goals (if any) have been achieved nationally during their tenure.
Furthermore, the ISS finds that instituting a mandatory stepping aside of an acting president would assist in “addressing negative perceptions of voter manipulation and vote-rigging which have contributed to post-electoral violence and political instability on the continent [of Africa].”
This is of high relevance to Malawi as the country has gone to the polls for the second time in two years on the 23rd of June 2020.
Since Muntharika was announced re-elected in May 2019, Malawi had experienced a year of public demonstrations let by CSOs including the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC), who claimed that the last elections were rigged and highly manipulated by the incumbent. Thousands of citizens joined the HRDC in support of the protests, culminating in the Constitutional Court nullifying the 2019 poll in favour of fresh elections.
Thus, the stepping down of a president to avoid even the perception of tampering with the electoral process would go a long way in promoting post-electoral peace and stability and insuring that issues of malpractice are resolved independently.
The report however, does state that the stepping down of a president before an election, is not a fool-proof mechanism to mitigating the problem of incumbency abuse. Presidents are still able to control systems, making them work in their favor though not being in power. This being said, systems can always be improved, checked, and completely rewritten. As such, while being a concern, it does not negate the call for presidents to set aside their presidential duties until post-elections.
In a nutshell, with rising impunity and incumbency abuse in the African continent, the recommendation of the ISS for other African countries to follow the examples of Madagascar and Cabo Verde should be seriously considered by policy-makers if Africa is to truly work towards free and fair elections for all.
And while Malawi has broken the cycle of an incumbent president never losing, the ushering in of the new regime should not be viewed as the solution to all incumbency abuse. Let us see if when the time comes, Chakwera will be able to step down, to step up.