Malawi, a little known Southern African country has hogged the media spotlight globally for demonstrating functional systems to safeguard her democracy. Mallick Mnela reports tells a tale not being told by most: how the election Observers and Monitors helped keep the potential spread of COVID-19 minimal.
On a chilly morning of 23rd June 2020, Malawians came out to cast the ballot in a Fresh Presidential Election ordered by the courts following the nullification of the 2019 Presidential Polls.
This election pitted democracy against good health as it came at a time community transmission of the COVID-19 was gaining traction. But a compromise had to be made.
“Going to the elections knowing there was a pandemic was one major challenge. However, we got advice from technical people and worked to make sure voting took place in a safe environment,” Chairperson of the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) Dr. Chifundo Kachale said, adding that the electoral body also hired ushers to help enforce COVID-19 Prevention Measures on polling day.
Other than Monitoring and Observing to track irregularities that would affect the vote outcome, a group of local organisations comprising of the NICE Public Trust, Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP), Public Affairs Committee (PAC) and technological outfit, mHub, also took an interest to track how voters were being protected against contracting the virus or risking infecting others during the voting phase.
The consortium mounted an Election Situation Room (ESR) which received real time monitoring data that was accessed and analyzed by experts that comprised of a Data Scientist, Political Scientist and a Communications Expert to make sense of the electoral process.
The ESR also included an Intervention Desk comprising of officers from the Electoral Commission, Centre for Multiparty Democracy, the Malawi Police Service and technology experts from mHub.
“As part of our monitoring, we made sure that our monitors and observers assessed the situation so that we ensure that the safety of voters was guaranteed,” says Ollen Mwalubunju, Executive Director of the NICE Public Trust.
According to the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, at least nine African countries – including Nigeria, Kenya and Zimbabwe – have postponed elections at some level because of COVID-19 infection risks.
Ethiopia has indefinitely delayed national, parliamentary and regional voting originally set for August 29.
Malawi joins a number of African countries – including Guinea, Cameroon, Mali, Benin and Burundi – that have already have held vote since COVID emerged.
Though critics complained of health risks, there has been no indication of voting-related outbreaks in the named countries and the same is expected for Malawi due to the level of seriousness accorded to the level of Prevention measures deployed at polling stations.
While health experts have called for coronavirus safeguards in all public places, the campaign period in the run up to the polls was chaotic in relation to COVID-19 Prevention drive among political parties and their patrons.
“It is very important to keep that physical distance and assuring these events do not become an occasion for the virus to spread further into the population. Sadly, the period in the run up to the polls was not as well managed as during the polls,” added Mwalubunju of NICE Public Trust.
The Elections Observation Consortium Chairperson Boniface Chibwana acknowledges that the COVID-19 has negatively affected some of the electoral processes.
“It negatively affected strategies for delivering voter civic education and prevented international observers from coming to Malawi,” says Chibwana.
He also states that the previous regime capitalised on the disease outbreak for political gains such as delaying parliamentary meeting that was to set the poling date for the FPE.
“Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) were used as political handouts,” he adds.
In the Consortium’s preliminary report, the COVID 19 is also suspected to have contributed to the low voter turnout.
“The fight for COVID 19 also led to reprogramming most of the development partners funding to health and away from governance work that could have supported civic and voter education,” reads the Preliminary Report.
Despite all the challenges that were encountered during the Fresh Election in Malawi, there is one major lesson learnt: Election Observation should be flexible.
In the Malawian context, organisations embraced technology to track electoral processes during polling. In addition, monitors could also track adherence to public health measures to arrest further spread of the virus. When such measures were not enforced, an alert was sent to the Situation Room where a team of experts would quickly escalate it with relevant authorities for redress.
While Malawi is seen as a champion of democracy, a much closer look can show that this election was also a lot more about keeping the COVID-19 in check using electoral monitors!