Malawi should ensure free, fair and safe presidential rerun elections amid COVID-19 – Human Rights Watch

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Malawi authorities should ensure a free and fair, as well as safe, vote during upcoming presidential rerun elections amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.

On May 8, 2020, the country’s Supreme Court upheld the Constitutional Court’s February order nullifying President Peter Mutharika’s narrow victory in the May 2019 elections, citing serious irregularities, and ordered new elections within 150 days.

The rerun election, scheduled for July 2 pending parliamentary approval, sets Mutharika, from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), against Lazarus Chakwera, a candidate supported by an opposition coalition, including the Malawi Congress Party and the United Transformation Movement. Since May, there has been a spike in politically motivated violence against opposition politicians, human rights activists, and journalists, with no arrests of those allegedly responsible, the Malawi Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) reported.

“Malawi authorities should immediately develop processes that will ensure free, fair, and safe elections,” said Dewa Mavhinga, southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “They should enforce a range of measures to safeguard citizens against violence, and appropriately prosecute those responsible.”

The campaigns for the presidential rerun vote are taking place within the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, with 284 confirmed coronavirus cases in Malawi as of June 1. The government said that the virus will not interfere with the election.

On the night of May 4, unidentified people threw a Molotov cocktail into the office of the United Transformation Movement, led by Vice President Saulos Chilima, in the capital, Lilongwe, causing the deaths of three people and severely injuring three others.

Last week, videos went viral on social media showing groups of men dressed in Democratic Progressive Party regalia threatening violence and declaring Mangochi, a township in eastern Malawi, a “no-go area” for opposition parties.

On May 24, the Catholic Bishops in Malawi issued a collective pastoral letter outlining eight issues of concern in the country, including “increased acts of political violence,” which they condemned “in the strongest terms possible.”

On May 29, the campaign convoy of Vice-President Chilima, who had fallen out with President Mutharika and is Chakwera’s running mate, was stoned in Phalombe, Mutharika’s home area in the country’s south. Zodiak, a private Malawian broadcaster, reported that several journalists traveling in a press bus with Chilima’s convoy were injured.

The HRDC reported that during the last week in May, 12 suspected ruling party supporters physically assaulted the HRDC leader, Timothy Mtambo, in Blantrye, Malawi’s second largest city. His official security detail apprehended the attackers and handed them over to the police, who allegedly promptly released them without charge.

An HRDC leader for Rumphi district in northern Malawi, Walita Mkandawire, told Human Rights Watch that on June 1, a cabinet minister threatened him on his mobile phone with violence and death if he did not stop his activism.

The Media Institute of Southern Africa, Malawi Chapter (MISA Malawi), reported that on May 30, a group of people assaulted Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) journalists with metal bars at Mponela in Dowa, central Malawi. The next day, MISA Malawi issued a statement expressing concern that “journalists are increasingly becoming victims of political violence as the country prepares for the fresh presidential elections.” The institute said that political party leaders and the Malawi Police Service should make a commitment to end political violence.

Under the African Union Declaration on the Principles Governing Democratic Elections in Africa, all African governments are committed to the responsibility to “safeguard the human and civil liberties of all citizens including the freedom of movement, assembly, association, expression, and campaigning as well as access to the media on the part of all stakeholders, during electoral processes.”

Malawi, as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is also obligated under article 25 to ensure that: “Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity … [t]o vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.” This obligation requires governments to take positive steps to provide the services and infrastructure to ensure citizens can safely and effectively exercise their voting rights.

“Malawi authorities should fulfill their obligation to guarantee the rights of all eligible Malawians to vote in free and fair elections,” Mavhinga said. “Political violence needs to end to ensure a conducive environment for a credible vote.”

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