By Jimmy Kainja[1]

20th May has been and Malawians have voted, amid reports of some irregularities and insufficient voting materials, which has caused panic, commotion and tension in at least 21 polling stations, mostly in the commercial of Blantyre. These are worrying developments especially considering that the electoral body had ample time to prepare for the occasion.

It is even more worrying when you consider that these polls have been projected to be the most tightly contested elections in Malawi. This means that the winner is most likely to win with a small margin. It is easy for losers to reject electoral results when the winning margin is narrow than when there is a landslide. These elections needed to be handled with extra caution.

What Malawians should avoid is to take matters into their own hands, even when their grievances are genuine and their anger understandable. On the other hand, people are likely to take matters into their own hands if they have no confidence in authorities handling the situation. This means the Malawi Electoral Commission and other electoral stakeholders have an enormous challenge to return whatever confidence people have in the electoral process.

From the onset, these elections have been full of hypothesises, as it is the first time Malawi has had tripartite elections, it is the first time Malawi has had female candidates running for presidency and the ‘post-Kamuzu’ generation has voted for the first time. All these factors will form a part of post-elections analysis, which should help reflect the kind of country Malawi has become in the last 20 years of democracy.

One thing that the campaign period has clearly reflected is that Malawians have become very demanding; they want better services from their leaders. This was exemplified by emphasis of having “issue-based” political campaign, where policy issues guide political decisions, as opposed to tribalism, religion and distribution of cash and material resources.

A week away from the elections, an Afrobarometer poll (its merits and demerits notwithstanding), projected that 15% of the registered voters were still undecided on whom to vote for. It is a projection of course and it is a shame because it is difficult to know for certain even after the elections but those that have been paying close attention would not be surprised that this time Malawi has had more undecided voters than-ever. Part of the explanation is that ordinary Malawians are becoming democratically mature but those in leadership are not. This gulf is unhealthy and if kept unchecked could hinder the healthy development of Malawi’s young democracy.

Malawians are looking for visionary leaders who will put their country on a development path. I have met few people who opted not to vote, and the common reasoning is that it is difficult to go and vote when you clearly know that your vote will not really change the way things work in the country. The anger that some Malawians have shown at various polling stations has much more to do with their frustrations with the entire political system than it has with irregularities and insufficient voting materials at polling stations.

Human rights activist and former political prisoner, Mrs Vera Chirwa said in her autobiography, Fearless Fighter:

“Our political elite has a responsibility, which they not only neglect but also exploit at expense of our people… it took us [Malawi] 30 years to achieve a Malawian democracy. I hope it will not take another 30 years to make Malawian democrats.”

Malawi as a country should heed this call. Our political leaders have the most important role to play in making Malawi an effective democracy. Political leadership must meet expectations of people or be prepared to lead an angry nation, something no one wants to see.

[1] Jimmy Kainja is an academic, current affairs writer and blogger. He is interested in news media, communications, and political & social changes, particularly Malawi.

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