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Incumbency and vote buying are often considered decisive factors in winning African elections. Malawi’s President Joyce Banda had both going for her in her bid to stay in office in the election, held May 20–22. Perhaps because of this, the Economist Intelligence Unit, The Guardian and Al Jazeera English predicted that she would win by a narrow margin.
However, late Friday evening, after repeated delays and lengthy court hearings, the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) declared Peter Mutharika, the brother of Banda’s powerful predecessor, the victor. Mutharika’s triumph was largely expected at that point, but the slow pace of vote tabulation raised concerns about the impartiality of the court and MEC. The loss makes Banda Malawi’s shortest tenured president, having served for only two years. For this she can only blame herself. Her administration was plagued by a major corruption scandal and the unpopularity of her devaluation of the kwacha, Malawi’s currency, as well as her government's decision to liberalize fuel prices. She was also widely criticized for her numerous trips outside and within Malawi, which were perceived to be a drain on state resources.
Nevertheless, her loss also marks a significant change in Malawian politics. Incumbency and handouts are no longer a winning formula.
Africa’s big men
Even prior to the official announcement, unofficial results and parallel vote tabulation showed Banda trailing in third place among the 12 candidates vying for the presidency. She has asked the MEC to recount the votes. When the commission dismissed her premature request, the president held a press conference vowing to annul the results and calling for fresh elections within 90 days, in which she pledged not to run. The country’s High Court promptly froze Banda’s efforts to nullify the vote, which legal scholars say are extraconstitutional.
Incumbents tend not to lose, especially in Africa. Nic Cheeseman, a fellow in African politics at Oxford University, argues that weak political institutions and personalized power increase the incumbent’s advantage. This is especially true during elections, when incumbents use government resources to “buy” votes.
Despite Western perceptions of Banda as a reformer, she rarely deviated from this tradition of African big men who use handouts to woo voters. Ahead of the elections, Banda traveled extensively around the country, holding campaign events dubbed “development rallies,” where she would hand out bags of maize, livestock, houses for the poor and elderly and even motorbikes to the youth. At her final campaign stop, at the town of Songani in her home district of Zomba, the president gave away a truckload of new motorbikes to bike taxi operators in the area. It is not clear what funds were used to purchase the motorbikes; however, the truck was a state-owned vehicle, driven by a government employee. She also promised to continue the popular but expensive agricultural inputs subsidy program, even against the advice of economic analysts and Malawi’s key donors.
To be fair, Banda was not alone in doling out handouts in the recent election. Most Malawian politicians, including her opponents and those competing for office at lower levels of government, distributed an assortment of cash and gifts in the hope of securing votes. Patricia Kaliati, the director of the women’s wing of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), described handouts as “a winning strategy” for most political candidates in Malawi. In Zomba, the nation’s former colonial capital, a DPP parliamentary candidate running for re-election went as far as offering a fleet of buses to ferry commercial commuters for free in the weeks leading to the elections. As with Banda, incumbency and handouts were not sufficient to get him re-elected.
One party stands out as an exception, even if by circumstances rather than choice. Faced with meager campaign resources, the Malawi Congress Party built its campaign on the premise of ending handouts. As such, the party ran a frugal campaign focused primarily on its agenda if elected to office. Its presidential candidate, Lazarus Chakwera, came in second place, well ahead of Banda — underscoring the declining power of handouts.
Malawian voters are beginning to value their vote more than handouts.
So why is the power of handouts weakening?
First, some credit belongs to the advent of the secret ballot in the 1990s. Political benefactors now cannot effectively determine whether voters who receive gifts will support those same politicians in the polling booths. In 2012, 78 percent of Malawians, or nearly 8 in 10, said it was “not at all likely” that politicians could find out how one voted.
Second, handouts become a persuasive strategy when candidates can project a credible threat and ability to penalize defaulters. While her predecessors had youth wings renowned for using violence to bully and harass opponents, Banda and her People’s Party had no such network. Voters recognize that she has no means of punishing them even if she could identify recipients who did not vote for her.
Third, Malawian voters are becoming more sophisticated over time. There is a muted but growing realization that one can receive handouts and yet vote for a preferred candidate. Similarly, in a 2011 Afrobarometer survey conducted in Uganda, 76 percent of voters said they would accept money from election candidates but still vote for a candidate of their choice
Finally, Malawian voters are beginning to value their vote more than handouts. This presents further evidence of the argument that, across Africa, formal institutions such as elections and courts are increasingly becoming entrenched and are even trumping informal ones.
The poor handling of Malawi’s 2014 election and the court’s delay in announcing the results have unfortunately left many Malawians unhappy with both institutions. However, we shouldn’t expect democracy’s growing pains to increase Malawians’ support of big men politics and vote buying in the future. If anything, the obstacles experienced in this election should empower Malawians to demand better coordination and transparency in future elections.
Boniface Dulani is a lecturer in political science at Chancellor College, University of Malawi.
Kim Yi Dionne is Five College Assistant Professor of Government at Smith College.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.