Four elections this week (not counting Mongolia, which we looked at the other day). Three presidents seeking re-election, and a fourth intimately concerned with the outcome of local elections.
First up, on Tuesday, was the small southern African nation of Malawi. I find I’ve never written about Malawi before – it’s not exactly a major world player – but a reader asks what’s happening there, so let’s have a quick look.
Two brothers have run Malawi for most of the last 16 years: Bingu wa Mutharika was president from 2004 until his death in 2012; after a two-year interval in which his vice-president took over, the subsequent election was won by his younger brother, Peter Mutharika, who was re-elected in controversial circumstances in May last year. Widespread protests and violent confrontations followed.
Since Malawi (formerly called Nyasaland) used to be a British colony, you might guess that its problems have got something to do with a bad electoral system, and you’d be right. Presidential elections were a single first-past-the-post ballot, and Mutharika was declared the winner with only 38.6% of the vote as against 35.4% for his main challenger, Lazarus Chakwera.
Numerous irregularities were discovered, and in February the constitutional court threw out the result and ordered a fresh election – and, for good measure, ruled that it would be held in two rounds. But the second round won’t be required, since Saulos Chilima, who came third last year with 20.2%, has joined forces with Chakwera and is standing for vice-president on his ticket, leaving only the two serious candidates.
That made Chakwera a firm favorite to win this week’s re-run, and sure enough, the state broadcaster has reported that he is well in the lead with 59% to 38%. An earlier report said 55% to 40% on the basis of three-quarters of the vote counted.
It’s not the first time a court has invalidated a dodgy African election – it happened in Kenya in 2017 – but if Chakwera’s victory holds up it’ll be the first time that it’s resulted in an opposition victory. It also marks the rehabilitation of Chakwera’s party, the Malawi Congress Party, which led the country to independence in 1964 but was discredited by the dictatorship of Hastings Banda, who ruled for thirty years.
The second incumbent is Icelandic president Guðni Jóhannesson, who is up for re-election tomorrow. Iceland has the same undemocratic system that Malawi has just abandoned; Guðni won the job in 2016 with just 38.5% of the vote against eight opponents.
The difference of course is that in Iceland the president is just a figurehead, so elections are a bit less controversial. The worst that anyone much could come up with against Guðni last time was that as a historian he had taken an “unpatriotic” view of the cod wars. He replied that his view “was nuanced and supported by research.”*
And the electoral system doesn’t matter this time anyway, because there are only two candidates. Guðni’s sole opponent is Guðmundur Franklín Jónsson, and his prospects are negligible: a recent poll reported 93.5% support for Guðni, up three points on the previous poll.
Then the following day Poland goes to the polls, with president Andrzej Duda, who seemed to be coasting a couple of months ago, now facing a tough fight for re-election. We had a look at this last week.
No-one disputes that Duda will lead in Sunday’s first round: Politico’s polling aggregator puts him on 42%, a lead of 13 points. But that may not be enough to win the 12 July runoff. Hypothetical polls (usually less reliable) have him neck and neck with centrist Rafał Trzaskowski, the mayor of Warsaw, who now seems almost certain to be his opponent.
Finally to France, which also goes to the polls on Sunday for the second round of its municipal elections. President Emmanuel Macron is not on the ballot, but with less than two years of his term still to run the results could have a major impact on his prospects of re-election.
The first round of the elections was held on 15 March (see my report here). Normally the second round would be a week later, but Covid-19 forced a postponement and it’s far from clear what electoral effect that will have.
Most observers seem to think that France has done a reasonable job in its response to the pandemic, but the French public is hard to please and Macron’s approval rating, after receiving an initial boost, has been in decline since April. There has been much speculation about how he will respond to a poor result on Sunday, including suggestions that prime minister Edouard Philippe could be replaced (just as Jean-Marc Ayrault was in the same situation six years ago).
But unlike François Hollande’s Socialist Party, Macron’s party, Republic on the Move, has never had a large base in the municipalities and would never have expected to do particularly well. His chances in 2022 will depend more on his ability to keep his rivals divided in the same way they were three years ago, so ensuring that he again faces Marine Le Pen or some equivalent extremist – in which case the mainstream majority will rally behind him in the runoff.
So the main interest on Sunday will be in whether either the centre-left Socialists or the centre-right Republicans can do well enough to look like a winner and set themselves up to produce a candidate who might be able to knock out Macron. At this stage you’d have to bet against them.