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Legal expert opinion: MEC has power to undertake vote recount

There is a notion which as I gather has been endorsed by the High Court to the effect that the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) has no power/mandate/competence to order and undertake a “recount of the votes”. Below I advance the view that this notion is wholly misinformed; based on a deliberate circumvention of clear legal provisions and trite principles of interpretation; based on faulty reasoning; and probably induced by personal interest in the outcome of the issue the nation is contending with.

I argue for the position that MEC has every mandate to “determine” the outcome of an election and to use all appropriate methods available at its disposal for that purpose. I am open to contrary views that are informed by sound reasoning and proper application of the relevant principles that bear on the issues, in the spirit of an organised dialogue and not aimless bubbling.


To begin with, MEC is established under section 75 of the Constitution, the supreme law of the land. The duties, powers and functions of MEC are stipulated mainly under the Constitution (Constn), the Electoral Commission Act (ECA), and the Parliamentary and Presidential Elections Act (PPEA). Among the duties, powers and functions of MEC, section 8(1)(m) of ECA empowers MEC to “TO TAKE MEASURES AND TO DO SUCH OTHER THINGS AS ARE NECESSARY FOR CONDUCTING FREE AND FAIR ELECTIONS.”

Further, section 76(2)(c) of the Constitution sanctions that MEC shall, among other duties and functions, “DETERMINE ELECTORAL PETITIONS AND COMPLAINTS RELATED TO THE CONDUCT OF ANY ELECTIONS” (s.76(2)(c), Constn). The critical term “determine” which articulates the duty and the attendant power of MEC is not defined in the Constitution. In fact it need not be defined because it is a well-known term which simply means decide, rule, judge, issue a verdict on any issue submitted to a competent body for that purpose.

In other words, to determine is to examine or assess an issue or a complaint in terms of the evidence presented and the applicable law with a view to deriving the conclusion as to whether the complaint is valid or not. Where the complaint is found to be invalid, the natural result is that is it dismissed. Where on the other hand the complaint is determined to be valid, naturally and logically an effective remedial measure is taken or issued and this forms part of the determination.

Accordingly, to the extent that MEC has the duty and function of “determining” electoral petitions and complaints, it is perfectly competent to decide whether any complaint it has received is valid and if so it has the attendant power to take or issue an effective remedial measure. For purposes of an election (MEC’s business) an effective remedial measure is one that ensures that the result of an election is credible in the sense that all irregularities that would adulterate and impair the validity of the outcome of the election are removed or mitigated to a level that they are insignificant to the outcome.

The idea is to make sure as much as possible that the result of the election is nothing but the people’s choice. This is the only way of ensuring that the authority to govern Malawi is validly entrusted, and not fraudulently assumed by any individual or group of individuals – and this is the higher constitutional value that any process and any measure taken by MEC seeks or must seek to achieve.

Indeed the process of “determining” electoral petitions and complaints must uphold that higher value, without which we risk being governed by a group of individuals who purport to acquire the mandate to govern by fraud!

From the above, it should be beyond rational contention that MEC has the duty and function to “determine electoral petitions and complaints”(s.76(2)(c), Constn) which includes the attendant power to take effective remedial measures (s.8(1)(m), ECA) where a given complaint is determined to be valid and of such gravity as to affect the validity of the outcome.

Whether “recounting the votes” is among the range of effective remedial measures MEC can take is the second point I address, since it is this particular measure that some people deny MEC the competence to opt for, a denial the Court has erroneously endorsed!
Trite principle of justice would have it that where there is a wrong there must be some measure adopted to right the wrong.

In more exact terms, we say where there is a wrong there must be a remedy. It is a principle that commands judicial authority. No civilised mind would raise any serious contention against that principle. In the case of electoral complaints which have been determined to be valid and of sufficient gravity as to adulterate and impair the validity of the outcome of the election, the remedial measure must seek to remove that impairment, or mitigate it to an insignificant size.

An electoral outcome is impaired or adulterated if it results from a combination of circumstances which defeat the people’s true choice (se “A”) by instead fraudulently making choice “B” appear as the people’s choice. The remedial measure will be effective if it is capable of expunging all factors that contribute to the masking of any candidate (e.g. “B”) as the people’s choice.

The means or necessary measures of expunging or mitigating irregularities are neither expressly stipulated nor limited under the laws that govern MEC’s mandate. Indeed there is no provision which restricts the measures that MEC can adopt to remedy an irregularity.
Rather and interestingly, section 113 of the PPEA simply and broadly states that “any complaint submitted in writing alleging any irregularity at any stage, if not satisfactorily resolved at a lower level of authority, shall be examined and decided on by the Commission and WHERE THE IRREGULARITY IS CONFIRMED THE COMMISSION SHALL TAKE NECESSARY ACTION TO CORRECT THE IRREGULARITY AND THE EFFECTS THEREOF.” This is important to note because it entails that MEC has fairly wide latitude to determine and adopt the appropriate and effective measure where it finds a given complaint or petition to be valid and of significant proportion.

On this point, I gather that those who advance the view that MEC has no competence to order and undertake a recount draw that conclusion from section 114(4) of the PPEA. Section 114 deals with appeals against determinations of MEC on electoral petitions and complaints. The determination against which an appeal can be lodged to the High Court are those mandated under, among others, section 76(2)(c) of the Constitution and section 113 of the PPEA (quoted immediately above).

For purposes of reviewing the determinations of MEC, section 114(1) states that “an appeal shall lie to the High Court against a decision of [MEC] confirming or rejecting the existence of an irregularity At s.114(4), the PPEA MERELY provides that “the High Court shall have power to direct scrutiny and RECOUNTING of votes if it is satisfied, during proceedings on an election petition, that such scrutiny and recount are desirable.”

There are a few points to note on s.114(4) of the PPEA. Firstly, it does not exclusively arrogate to the High Court the power to direct a RECOUNT or scrutiny. Secondly, it should not take someone reading volumes on process philosophy to figure that the High Court’s power procedurally only comes into play on review of determinations of MEC.

MEC would have to make its own determinations first and it is these determinations that would be reviewed by the High Court upon which the High Court may then direct a RECOUNT, as one of the possible remedial measures which the Court may find desirable.

I repeat, there is nothing in s114(4) of PPEA that exclusively arrogates to the High Court the power to direct a recount, a thing the High Court can only do upon a review of the determination of MEC. Put differently, there is nothing in s114(4) of PPEA prohibiting MEC or limiting MEC’s wide latitude to TAKE NECESSARY ACTION TO CORRECT THE IRREGULARITY AND THE EFFECTS THEREOF (s.113, PPEA).
How the Court can find that MEC has no mandate to adopt as a necessary measure the recount of the votes or such other measures of scrutiny to correct the irregularities it confirms is unclear. For the Court to come to such a conclusion, it would have to deliberately ignore the above quoted provisions and deliberately stretch s114(4) of the PPEA to mean and only mean that it (the High Court) has the mandate to order a recount.

Even at the risk of an overkill, section 114(4) of PPEA does not restrict MEC’s power to take necessary action to correct irregularities and the effects thereof! Procedurally, what the Court can do under s114(4) of the PPEA only follows after what MEC will have done under s.113 of the PPEA among other provisions.

I wish to conclude by saying that in tackling the issues that beset us as a nation regarding the election, we must seek to uphold the profound principle that the authority to government Malawi must validly derive from the people of Malawi and genuinely vest in a group of individuals who are the peoples’ choice determined by real votes cast in favour such individuals and not by some fraudulent means that mask given candidates as the people’s choice. That is the higher constitutional value that we must seek to uphold.

With a mind that is clogged with immediate personal interests, it is not possible to perceive and conceive that higher constitutional value and seek to uphold it. So what informed the Court’s decision that MEC has no power to adopt a recount as a measure for correcting irregularities that it has confirmed to be valid and substantial? Let people of good conscience decide for themselves.

• Bright Theu is former Malawi Law Society (MLS) secretary general and a private practicing lawyer

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