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Malawi leader to appeal overturning of poll win

(FILES) In this file photo taken on May 28, 2019 Malawi’s President-elect Arthur Peter Mutharika is sworn in for his second term by Chief Justice Andrew Nyirenda (L) and Registrar of the High Court and Supreme court of appeal Agnes Patemba (R) at Kamuzu Stadium in Blantyre after a contentious election marred by allegations of fraud and vote-rigging. – Malawi’s constitutional court on February 3, 2020, has cancelled presidential vote result. (Photo by AMOS GUMULIRA / AFP)

Malawian President Peter Mutharika plans to challenge a court decision overturning his election victory last year, his spokesman said on Wednesday, in a move that could spark fresh opposition protests.

After six months of hearings that gripped the southern African country, five top judges on Monday ruled that Mutharika was “not duly elected.”

They cited massive and widespread irregularities including the use of correction fluid on results sheets.

The judges ordered a fresh poll within 150 days — an unprecedented ruling in Malawi’s post-colonial history.

But Mutharika’s spokesman, Mgeme Kalilani, described the ruling as “a serious miscarriage of justice and an attack on the foundations of the country‚Äôs democracy” and told AFP that the president would appeal.

He did not say when Mutharika, 79, would file the challenge. He has six weeks in which to do so.

Lazarus Chakwera, the leader of the main opposition Malawi Congress Party, who came a close second to Mutharika, hailed the landmark verdict.

“It is a democracy that has won. It is Malawi that has won. It is Africa that has won. And now justice has been served,” he told more than 10,000 jubilant supporters who thronged his party’s Lilongwe headquarters on Tuesday.

Mutharika was declared the winner of the May 21 election with 38.5 percent of the vote, with Chakwera losing by just 159,000 votes.

Chakwera said he was robbed of victory and went to court to challenge the result.

He was backed in the legal challenge by the former vice president Saulos Chilima, who fell out with Mutharika and contested the election on an opposition ticket.

Results ‘cannot be trusted’
The constitutional court judges concurred that “the irregularities and anomalies have been so widespread, systematic and grave… that the integrity of the results has been seriously compromised”.

The court said only 23 percent of the result sheets had been able to be verified, and that the outcome announced by the electoral commission “cannot be trusted as a true reflection of the will of the voters”.

It is the first time a presidential election has been challenged on legal grounds in Malawi since independence from Britain in 1964, and only the second African vote result to be cancelled, after the 2017 Kenya presidential vote.

Allegations of vote-rigging sparked protests across the normally peaceful country last year shortly after results were announced. Several of the demonstrations turned violent.

In a news conference on Wednesday, the third runner-up, Chilima, called on the electoral commission resign immediately.

“They simply must go. The Court has found them incompetent. They have no place in … Malawi,” he said, castigating the commission’s “cavalier and reckless attitude”.

In the town of Salima, about 100 kilometres (60 miles) east of Lilongwe, dozens of opposition supporters on Tuesday paraded a coffin draped with Mutharika’s Democratic Progressive Party blue campaign cloth.

They marched the streets mocking his death, chanting in the local Chichewa language “Dad is dead”.

Further south in Zomba, the former colonial capital and now fourth-largest city, opposition supporters sang and danced in the streets on Tuesday, calling on Mutharika to step down following the historic ruling.

Mutharika will remain president until the new election, the court ruled, with Chilima as his deputy.

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) commended the court for “upholding the Malawian constitution” and pledged to “support… the election process”.

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