LILONGWE, Malawi, Feb 3 – Malawi’s constitutional court judges on Monday began reading out the anxiously awaited ruling on whether to annul the controversial vote that saw President Peter Mutharika re-elected in last May’s election.
Whichever way the verdict goes, it is likely to stoke turmoil in the impoverished southern African country.
The case has gripped the nation and kept Malawians glued to radio stations for hours on end listening to live broadcasts of witnesses presenting evidence of alleged vote rigging.
Security was tightened with heavy military presence around the court.
Judges were driven to court in a military armoured personnel carrier.
An army helicopter occasionally hovered above the courthouse and the central business district as the verdict was read out.
Sporadic protests have broken out across the country since Mutharika was declared the winner by a narrow margin in the May 21 presidential elections with 38.5 percent of the vote.
Runner-up Lazarus Chakwera, who lost by just 159,000 votes, alleges he was robbed of victory.
His Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and the opposition United Transformation Movement (UTM) have petitioned the courts to annul the poll.
It is the first time a presidential election has been challenged on legal grounds in Malawi since independence from Britain in 1964.
“Credible, free and fair elections form a solid foundation for democracy,” said judge chairman Healey Potani, in a preamble to the 500-long page judgment.
“Those vested with the duty have a sacred duty to all people and need to discharge such a duty diligently”
Protesters have been demanding the resignation of the electoral commission chief, and many demonstrations have turned violent.
“There will be winners and losers and we are not sure how the losers will react,” said Malawian politics professor Michael Jana.
A number of schools and companies have closed for the week, fearing violence could erupt after the ruling is announced.
Anticipation was high in the financial capital Blantyre, Malawi’s second-largest city where the court is located.
“I’m expecting change,” said Chatonda Jembe, who works as an administrator.
“Not necessarily change in leadership (but) change in attitude.”
“The leadership on both sides of the political divide know they can no longer take people for granted.”
Anger flared last month after Chief Justice Andrew Nyirenda claimed bribes had been offered to the five judges presiding over the case.
Malawi’s anti-graft body vowed to probe the allegations and arrested top banker Thom Mpinganjira last week.
Judge Potani said the constitutional court “believes electoral disputes should never be taken lightly and must be treated as such mostly when involving presidential polls”.
Both Chakwera and UTM candidate Saulos Chilima – who were in court on Monday – have urged supporters to maintain peace and accept the court’s decision, regardless of the outcome.
“There is more that binds us than that which separates us,” Chilima told reporters last week.
“No matter which corner of this country we come from, we are a peace-loving people and we look out for each other.”
Chakwera called on his supporters to welcome the ruling with “open arms” as a base for “rebuilding our nation”.
Opposition leaders allege the election’s tally sheets were tampered with, even claiming that polling station agents used correction fluid to alter some results.
Mutharika has repeatedly dismissed their accusations and brushed off doubts about the official results.
“The government urges all political parties in the country and other stakeholders to respect the rule of law,” said spokesman Mark Botomani. “Destruction of the country is counter-productive.”
If the judges rule in favour of the opposition, Mutharika’s party is likely to appeal before the supreme court.
Law professor Danwood Chirwa said that process was likely to be settled within two months.
“If it takes longer than this there will be too much chaos,” he said.
In a joint statement, British, American and several European ambassadors referred Thursday to the verdict as a “pivotal moment” in Malawi’s history.
It echoes a historic decision by Kenya’s judiciary to annul presidential election results over claims of widespread irregularities in 2017.