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15.04.2020 Malawi

Malawi court hears president's appeal of cancellation of re-election

By Jack McBRAMS
Mutharika is appealing after the Constitutional Court annulled the election and ordered a re-run, citing 'grave' and 'widespread' irregularities.  By AMOS GUMULIRA (AFP/File)
LISTEN APR 15, 2020
Mutharika is appealing after the Constitutional Court annulled the election and ordered a re-run, citing 'grave' and 'widespread' irregularities. By AMOS GUMULIRA (AFP/File)

Malawi's Supreme Court on Wednesday began hearing an appeal by President Peter Mutharika against the cancellation of his re-election following polls held in the southern African nation last May.

Admitting electoral laws were flouted during the vote, lawyers for Mutharika and the electoral commission said before the Supreme Court that the breaches did not materially prejudice anyone.

The Constitutional Court in February annulled the results of the May 2019 poll and ordered a re-run, citing "grave" and "widespread" irregularities including the use of correction fluid on tally sheets.

Mutharika appealed against the landmark ruling, accusing the court of bias against him.

His lawyer, Samuel Tembenu, admitted correction fluid was used but said that no votes were altered.

"There was no evidence to state that votes were taken from one candidate and given to another," he told a full bench of seven Supreme Court judges.

He said the Constitutional Court had used the term "irregularities" loosely when it nullifed the vote results in February.

"They were merely breaches of the electoral law," he said.

The country's electoral commission is also appealing the decision to overturn the election it organised and the order for a vote re-run.

Its lawyer Tamando Chokotho said the opposition politicians who disputed the poll outcome failed "to show that any party suffered any prejudice through the result management system".

"No prejudice or advantage was shown in relation to the use of Tippex, alterations or duplicates," said Chokotho said.

The hearings are set to last two weeks.

'Tippex prejudiced no one'

In his appeal papers, Mutharika said the judges had "erred in law" and asked the Supreme Court to reverse the judgement.

The president described the ruling as "a serious miscarriage of justice and an attack on the foundations of the country's democracy".

A new election has been set for July 2, although it could be delayed by the appeal and the coronavirus outbreak.

Malawi Electoral Commission chairwoman Jane Ansah has said the court overstepped its powers by ordering parliament to amend electoral laws ahead of a new vote.

Mutharika has refused to assent to the proposed amendments, notably one that requires a more than 50 percent majority to secure a win.

That threshold is a major sticking point for the incumbent, who had been declared winner with just 38.5 percent of the vote.

Runner-up Lazarus Chakwera, the leader of the main opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP), came a close second with 35.4 percent, losing by just 159,000 votes.

The MCP has since partnered with the United Transformation Movement (UTM) to maximise the chances of unseating the president.

UTM leader and the country's vice president Saulos Chilima came third with 20 percent of the vote.

It is the first time a presidential election has been challenged on legal grounds in Malawi since independence from Britain in 1964.

Malawi.  By Jean Michel CORNU (AFP) Malawi. By Jean Michel CORNU (AFP)

The court ordered a fresh election within 150 days, as well as an investigation into the conduct of the electoral commission.

Both Mutharika and the MEC have made various attempts to delay the process.

Ansah claims that organising an election would require more time and has suggested October 28 as the new polling date.

Chakwera's lawyer, Mordecai Msiska, said it was "astounding" that Mutharika "is still resisting" the Constitutional Court order.

"This kind of attitude endangers the entire constitution process and democratic order and the glue that holds a country together and keeps legitimacy,' Msiska said.

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