Depending on how SADC chooses to handle Malawian President Joyce Banda’s decision last Saturday to annul the presidential election in which she appears set to lose, the regional body may well salvage some of its reputation which took a severe battering over, among others, its handling of controversial Zimbabwean polls last year, but sceptics are holding little hope of that.
“I am nullifying the elections, using the powers invested in me by the Malawi constitution,” Banda told a news conference on Saturday, adding, “I want to give Malawians an opportunity to choose a candidate of their choice in a free and fair manner.”
Tellingly on how she views her chances should such a rerun materialise, Banda added that “when elections are to be held again, I will be stepping aside”.
But if this was an attempt to be self-effacing, it has found no takers as the Sadc Electoral Observation Mission (SEOM), the Malawian High Court and the Malawi Electoral Commission (Mec) have all taken exception to her claims.
SEOM has issued a preliminary report with findings diametrically opposed to those of Banda who ironically became Sadc chairperson at the 33rd summit held in Lilongwe, Malawi, on August 17-18 last year and successfully led the push for the endorsement of Zimbabwe’s flawed polls held last year in July.
Paradoxically, President Robert Mugabe, the winner of Zimbabwe’s polls and a close Banda ally, was accused, along with the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec), of gross irregularities including rigging and intimidation — the same reasons Banda now cites for “annulling” the Malawian elections.
“SEOM noted the concerns raised by some stakeholders. Nonetheless, those concerns and shortcomings were not of such gravity as to affect the integrity of the electoral process,” the observer mission said in its statement.
“Guided by the Sadc Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections, SEOM has concluded that the 2014 Tripartite Elections in the Republic of Malawi were peaceful, free, transparent and credible, reflecting the will of the people of Malawi.
“In accordance with the Sadc Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections, SEOM wishes to urge all political parties and candidates who contested these elections to respect the will of the people.
Thus, any complaints that may arise should be channelled through the relevant authorities in accordance with the laws of the Republic of Malawi,” SEOM said.
An eloquent rebuttal of Banda’s rigging claims, it is fair to say. And it is not just SEOM which has rejected Banda’s claims, even the High Court of Malawi ruled her declaration invalid following a joint petition by Mec and Malawi Law Commission and the Democratic Progressive Party.
So the question is: what will Sadc do? Will it side with its chairperson and enhance its growing dubious reputation for failing to act decisively in the interests of democratic free expression and leadership renewal? Or will it dump Banda and show that even after the Zimbabwean debacle, it really has teeth after all, and can act in accordance with its principles and guidelines for the holding of free and credible elections?
According to Takura Zhangazha, a political analyst, Sadc has become a respected dispute resolution mechanism which the different member states consult for resolution of disputes.
“The fact that Sadc is still an option for Malawi and other countries shows that it is actually effective as a mechanism for dispute resolution,” said Zhangazha.
That reputation has, however, taken a knock with some analysts saying the regional body has been found wanting in dealing decisively with incumbents who refuse to concede defeat.
That unwillingness or failure to act is what Banda was probably banking on as she seeks to overturn an imminent electoral defeat, but it could turn out to be a bad investment.
Bulawayo-based analyst Godwin Phiri said Sadc and the AU had in fact created a Government of National Unity (GNU) culture in which incumbents that lose elections deliberately create chaos and confusion that is only resolved by including them in a coalition (GNU) arrangement.
“That is what Banda is hoping to achieve in Malawi after having seen that in Kenya, Zimbabwe and Madagascar. It is an indictment on Sadc that a loser like this can actually hope for redemption from the regional body.”
Although this seems an open and shut case where Banda appears a lone voice amid general endorsement of the elections by the country’s courts and electoral body, there is no telling what Sadc will eventually decide to do given the manner in which they made a surprising about turn to endorse Mugabe’s election victory after having condemned the process leading up to it right to the month before the polls.
After the bloody June 2008 presidential poll run-off, the AU and Sadc forced Mugabe into a coalition arrangement with the MDC formations to ensure conditions were created for the holding of credible elections while the socio-economic outlook stabilised.
To its credit, in all its summits on Zimbabwe starting with Kinshasa in the DRC in 2009 to Maputo, Mozambique, in June 2013, Sadc consistently pushed for the implementation of electoral, security sector and media reforms deemed critical for a credible election, but lacked a clear mechanism to force Mugabe’s hand in compliance.
In fact, in Maputo, just a month before the elections, Sadc “endorsed recommendations which include, among others, media reforms, upholding the rule of law, the role of the Joint Monitoring and Implementation Committee in supervising the agreement, the general elections date, validity of electoral regulations and deployment of Sadc observers”.
But when Mugabe failed to implement these and Zec failed even the simple task of providing a voters’ roll, Sadc still went on to endorse Mugabe’s victory with Banda as one of those who played a leading role.
To cap Mugabe’s rehabilitation from a somewhat regional pariah status, he was elected to his current position of deputy chair of the regional body.
Given these precedents, Banda is only too well aware of chances and is gambling on the regional body’s unwillingness to act against an incumbent, one of their own and in this case someone they elected to lead Sadc less than a year ago.
However, Sadc has the perfect opportunity to redeem its image by ruling against Banda who was so far behind in the race according to preliminary results that her expected heavy loss cannot be explained in terms of rigging.
In any case, as the incumbent in control of instruments of the state, it would have been much easier for her to rig the polls as opposed to the opposition.
More significantly, as Mec and the High Court have already ruled against Banda, Sadc can always plead that it cannot go against the decision of the courts of a member state as that would be tantamount to interfering with internal sovereign processes, as it did when Mugabe used the Zimbabwean courts to unilaterally fix election dates last year.
Political commentator Dumisani Nkomo said in light of the court ruling against Banda, Sadc is likely to rule against her should the matter be brought to it as the regional body had “already set itself that precedent of respecting internal court processes”.
“I do not see Sadc contravening the precedent they set in the Zimbabwean situation where they decided against overturning a court decision on election matters,” he said.
All said, the Malawi elections are a godsend for Sadc to redress frequent criticism of favouring incumbents bent on frustrating democratic processes.