In a landmark judgment, Malawi’s Constitutional Court has annulled the May 2019 presidential vote that declared Peter Mutharika a winner and ordered a fresh poll within 150 days.
The judgment followed an application from opposition parties citing irregularities.
Mutharika, Malawi president since 2014, won the election with a 38.57% share of the vote, with opposition party leader Lazarus Chakwera getting 35.41% and Deputy President Saulos Chilima, who formed his own party, had 20.24% in the final tally.
The electoral commission declared Mutharika the winner despite complaints of irregularities including results sheets with sections blotted out or altered with correction fluid.
Mutharika had pledged to crack down on corruption and revive the economy in his second five-year term.
But Chakwera, the president’s main rival, and Chilima rejected the results and filed a petition to the High Court asking it to nullify the results.
In a unanimous decision on Monday, a panel of five judges ordered that a new presidential vote be held within 150 days.
“It is almost impossible to have an election free of irregularities,” said Justice Healey Potani, who headed the panel.
“However, in the present matter our finding is that the anomalies and irregularities have been so widespread, systematic and grave such that the integrity of the result was seriously compromised, and can’t be trusted as the will of voters of the May 21, 2019 election.”
In a landmark ruling for the country, the court described the conduct of the electoral commission as “very lacking and demonstrated incompetence”.
The status in the presidency would revert to before the elections, Potani said, which meant Chilima would be reinstated as vice president.
The court also directed Parliament to consider recalling the current electoral body, which is headed by Supreme Court of Appeal Judge Jane Ansah, to “ensure smooth conduct of fresh elections.”
The streets in Lilongwe and the commercial capital Blantyre were unusually quiet ahead of the ruling, and many businesses were shut, fearing violence and looting from supporters of the losing side.
Security forces were out on the streets in large numbers, and the judges delivering the verdict were flown in on a military plane and arrived at the venue in armoured vehicles.
Malawi, a lakeside nation on the southern tip of the Great Rift Valley, is dependent on foreign aid and is frequently beset by drought which threatens the lives of thousands of people.
Former law professor Mutharika, 79, oversaw infrastructure improvements and a slowdown in inflation in his first five-year term, but critics accuse him of cronyism and failing to tackle graft.