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MALAWI: Flawed voter registration casts doubt on poll results

johannesburg, 24 May 2004 (IRIN) - Malawi's new president, Bingu wa Mathurika, was sworn in on Monday amid threats of a court challenge to the election results by opposition parties.

His inauguration came a day after opposition supporters clashed with police in the southern city of Blantyre, and various opposition groups denounced the election as rigged.

At least four people were reported to have died in the violence, with the policing using both live and rubber bullets.

Mutharika won 35 percent of the vote, the South African Press Association reported, while opposition candidates John Tembo and Gwanda Chakuamba came second and third with 27 percent and 26 percent respectively.

Election observer groups said that while the 20 May poll was free, they could not endorse it as having been fair.

The Commonwealth observer team said it had "noted the serious inadequacies in the registration process and the inability of the [Malawi] Electoral Commission to resolve some important issues".

"We are also deeply concerned about the gross bias of the public media. The misuse of the advantages of incumbency is also a matter of grave concern to us. In our overall assessment of the whole electoral process we will take these matters into account," said the team.

In its interim report the observer mission of the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa (EISA), a regional pro-democracy group, noted that: "By all accounts, the voter registration process was deficient, resulting in inflated voter registration figures. The cleaning process resulted in a computerised voters' roll which contained other deficiencies, including omission of names and photographs."

The EISA mission, headed by Botswana's former president Sir Ketumile Masire, added that complaints by voters "whose names did not appear in the roll were not addressed in a consistent manner in the various polling centres, and no corrections seemed to have been made, in spite of the extension of the inspection period".

The mission was "concerned by reports of unbalanced coverage of the elections by the public media in favour of the ruling party", and "although the electoral law provides for the enforcement of media guidelines by MEC, the Commission seems to have failed to ensure fair media coverage for all parties and candidates".

The MEC was also slated because it "appeared to be unwilling to fully exercise the powers vested in it by the constitution and the electoral laws (i.e. access to public media)".

EISA added that "the commission seemed to lack the institutional capacity to organise and manage some crucial aspects of the electoral process, such as the compilation of the voters' roll".
The deputy head of the EISA mission, Denis Kadima, told IRIN the poll "was free but not fair. Fairness is about equal opportunity for all candidates and this was our main complaint".

The MEC has denied any tampering with the poll results.

Rafiq Hajat, political analyst and poll observer with the Centre for Social Research in Chancellor College at the University of Malawi, told IRIN the ballot "was not fair - the entire process was opaque". The "management of the electoral process was deeply flawed and therefore it cannot be a credible result".

As a consequence, the donor community would likely be "more stringent about disbursing budget support", which would result in heavy domestic borrowing by the government, leading to rising interest rates and a depreciating local currency.

"It will mean untold and unprecedented misery for the poor man on the streets for the next six months," Hajat warned.

Theme (s): Governance, Other,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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