BLANTYRE, Malawi (AP) -- The Constitutional Court in the southern African nation of Malawi on Monday nullified the results of last year's presidential election, citing "widespread, systematic and grave" irregularities including significant use of correction fluid to alter the outcome.
A new vote will be held within 150 days, the court said in its unanimous ruling, saying at the end that it hoped the ruling would not "destroy the nation.'
The two leading opposition candidates had challenged the narrow election win of President Peter Mutharika, alleging that irregularities affected over 1.4 million of the total 5.1 million votes cast.
Months of sometimes deadly unrest followed the announcement of the election results. The president and electoral commission acknowledged some irregularities but argued they were insufficient to affect the election's outcome.
Monday's ruling can be appealed to the Supreme Court. The president's legal team refused to answer questions and hurriedly left the court premises. The attorney general, representing the electoral commission, said they would have to consult on next steps.
Security was tight and people across the country followed the day-long court session, read out in English and Chichewa, live on radio broadcasts.
Many listened spellbound as the court listed multiple irregularities, from the liberal use of the correction fluid Tipp-Ex that "greatly undermined" the vote's integrity to the lack of signatures on some results forms. The court told the country's parliament to evaluate whether the electoral commission can conduct the new election.
The judges even challenged the electoral system, saying the results suggested that no one was elected by a majority in accord with the Constitution, citing dictionary definitions of majority and plurality. It ordered parliament to meet within 21 days to come up with a new law to guide the fresh elections.
Long-peaceful Malawi became just the second country in sub-Saharan Africa to see a presidential vote overturned. In 2017, Kenya's Supreme Court shocked that country by annulling the presidential election, citing irregularities. President Uhuru Kenyatta won the fresh election as the leading opposition candidate boycotted the vote.
Mutharika had been declared the narrow winner of Malawi's May election with 38% of votes, followed by Lazarus Chakwera with 35% and former vice president Saulos Chilima third with 20%. The four other candidates collectively got nearly 6%.
The European Union election observer mission in a statement shortly after the vote called the count "transparent" but noted that "it is clear that problems with results sheets are causing challenges."
The months-long court case was accompanied by sometimes violent street protests demanding the resignation of electoral commission chairwoman Jane Ansah. The Malawi Human Rights Commission late last year released a report accusing the police of serious human rights abuses, including rape and assault, in one confrontation.
The two opposition candidates in recent days called for calm. On Thursday, Chilima urged Malawians to remain peaceful and challenged Mutharika to show the qualities of a true statesman.
He also asked the Malawi Police Service, which has been supported by the military as unrest grew, to stop thugs who may want to take advantage of any public outcry after the ruling.
"There is more that binds us than that which separates us," he said. "Violence and civil strife are alien to this land. We must not lose this gem. It is what defines us a people."
The international community, including the United Nations and African Union, issued several statements ahead of the vote urging people across Malawi to uphold the rule of law and remain calm.
A joint statement by diplomats from the United States, Britain, the European Union, Japan and others acknowledged the tensions around the ruling.
"Malawi can draw on an impressive history of institutions and leaders stepping forward to safeguard your democracy and ensure peaceful resolution for internal tensions," the statement said, urging all parties to respect the court's decision — as well as the right to appeal.
One excited witness to the court's ruling, Vincent Nhlema, said "it was clear from the start" what the outcome would be.
And a supporter of the president, Raymond Chikoko, said the only comfort is that Mutharika remains in the State House. He called on opposition supporters to celebrate with dignity.