A chaotic start to elections in Malawi

By Ozias Tungwarara | May 21st, 2014
Voting in Malawi got off to a chaotic start this morning due to lack of materials such as the voters’ roll, ballot papers, ink, pens, and ballot boxes.  This resulted in many polling centres opening late.  There have also been reports of rioting, burning of some polling stations and destruction of polling materials by frustrated voters.  Several polling stations had not opened by noon.  The capacity of the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) to manage the logistics had always been an area of concern.
The MEC was frantically printing the final voters’ roll yesterday afternoon.  It also emerged that ballot papers were in short supply especially for the local government elections.  This state of affairs confirmed the elections situation room analysis that had highlighted as a concern that insufficient attention was being paid to the local government component of the election.  The MEC hastily convened a stakeholder meeting to decide how to respond to the emerging challenges.  In the final analysis the MEC took the decision to proceed with the election.
Given that a majority of polling stations did not open on time, the MEC extended poll station closing time from 18:00 to 21:00.  Presiding officers were also allowed discretion to decide if polling should be extended beyond 21:00.  The immediate concern was whether adequate arrangements had been made regarding lighting if people are voting in the night. Whether there are enough ballot materials for those stations that are going to open late, remains an issue.
Judging by long queues that were being reported on by the election situation room observers deployed on the ground as well as other observers, it appears that there was large voter turn-out.  Earlier there were reports of disturbances that included burning down of polling stations, rioting, looting, and suspension of voting in some stations.  The disturbances were largely attributed to frustration by voters at polling stations opening late.
The situation room faced a number of challenges especially with transmission and the processing of data.  On Monday internet for most of the service providers slowed dramatically.  When the more than 4000 observers deployed by the situation room started transmitting data it became clear that the majority of them were not following the observer checklist but tended to be focusing on incidents.  The situation room task force was able to convene a press briefing during which they highlighted concern about the chaotic manner in which the election had proceeded.  They also then met with the MEC to convey these concerns.  Another press by the situation room task force briefing is planned for tomorrow.
Counting of the ballots is now underway.  Given the late closing of the polling stations, it’s not clear at this stage when vote counting will be completed.  While the pre-electoral environment was peaceful and citizens were able to exercise meaningful choice, the shambolic manner in which election day proceedings were conducted undermined the credibility of the electoral process.  Given that the electoral process remains too close to call, the critical issue is going to be whether contestants are going to accept the outcome.      

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