General elections for the President, the National Assembly and local government were held in Malawi on May 20, 2013. The President, who is head of state and government, is elected for a five-year term, renewable once, by FPTP. The 194 members of the National Assembly are elected by FPTP in single-member constituencies.
Malawi, a small landlocked country in southeast Africa, is one of the poorest countries in the world. It ranks 170th out of 187 countries on the HDI index, just above Sudan and Zimbabwe; it has one of the lowest GDPs per capita in the world; and about 90% of the population survives on less than 2% per day. Although it is a fairly small country by land area, Malawi has a largely rural and very young population of 16.4 million.
Malawi is a ‘partly free’ country according to Freedom House’s 2014 report and a ‘flawed democracy’ according to The Economist, ranking close to Senegal and a bit above Ghana. Malawi is an electoral democracy, political pluralism is respected, most institutions function with an acceptable degree of independence from government, civil liberties and press freedom is usually respected. However, corruption, police brutality and discrimination against women and LGBT are major issues.
Malawi, formerly known as Nyasaland, gained full independence from the United Kingdom in 1964. After having been directly ruled by the Colonial Office, Nyasaland was part of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, as the smallest component alongside Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Northern Rhodesia (Zambia). Nyasaland had the smallest white population of the three entities, while its rapidly-growing African population was nearly as that in Zambia and Zimbabwe. The Federation was strongly opposed by African nationalists, while the ‘Winds of Change’ provided a further impetus for the breakup of the Federation in 1963, and decolonization under majority rule. In 1961, the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), led by foreign-educated Hastings Banda, swept elections to the colony’s legislative council. In July 1964, Malawi formally gained independence, and two years later it became a Republic outside the Commonwealth. Hastings Banda quickly consolidated power in his hands, sidelining rival cabinet ministers in 1964 and formally establishing a single-party (MCP) dictatorship in the 1966 constitution. In 1971, Banda was proclaimed as President-for-Life. Banda held total power over the entire government, and filled the National Assembly with hand-picked candidates as he saw fit.
In Malawi, Banda imposed a rigid and repressive authoritarian regime which imposed strict conservative dress codes, instilled a cult of personality in the president, censored all forms of media and literature, brutally and bloodily cracked down on any kind of opposition. The MCP’s youth wing, the Young Pioneers, acted as a paramilitary force which created a climate of fear in the country. Economically, the government handled the development of the economy, but economic development was characterized and undermined by severe corruption, favouritism and nepotism by government-controlled parastatals. Diplomatically, Banda, an Anglophile who disliked speaking his native tongue (Chichewa) followed a controversial foreign policy. He was widely seen as one of apartheid South Africa’s strongest black ally in southern Africa, because the Malawian government recognized and established diplomatic relations with South Africa. He also had ties with the Portuguese colonial regime in Mozambique and opposed FRELIMO, although during the Mozambican civil war, Banda provided support to both the FRELIMO government and the guerrillas.
In 1993, bowing to foreign and domestic pressure, Banda allowed for a referendum on the introduction of multi-party democracy. The option for multi-party democracy triumphed with 64.7% of the vote. One year later, free elections held in May 1994 saw Banda’s defeat at the hands of Bakili Muluzi, the candidate of the opposition United Democratic Front (UDF), who won 47% against 33% for Banda. Muluzi’s term of office (1994-2004) saw greater civil and political freedoms, but it was marred by the government’s catastrophic handling of a famine in 2002, Muluzi’s attempts to get around the constitutional two-term limit and significant allegations of corruption which he personally benefited from. Nevertheless, in the 2004 elections, Muluzi managed to get his little-known handpicked successor, Bingu wa Mutharika, elected to the presidency although the MCP took a plurality of seats in the legislature.
Mutharika turned out to be more than a puppet, and quickly clashed with his predecessor, who remained the leader of the UDF. Within a year, Mutharika set up his own party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and had cut off Mulezi, who was promptly investigated on corruption-related charges unresolved to this day. Mutharika’s first term in office saw the country enjoy strong economic growth and his agricultural policy, although expensive, benefited poorer farmers. In 2009, Mutharika was reelected to a second term, winning 66% against 31% for John Tembo, a former close collaborator of Hastings Banda who was backed by the MCP and Muluzi’s UDF (Muluzi endorsed the MCP after he failed to receive clearance to run himself). Mutharika’s DPP won a parliamentary majority, with the MCP and UDF winning less seats than independent candidates put together.
Mutharika’s second term quickly took a turn for the worse. In 2010, Mutharika picked a fight with his Vice President, Joyce Banda, and tried to dismiss her from office (which is unconstitutional), allegedly to make way for his brother and anointed successor, Peter Mutharika. Banda refused to resign and was later expelled from the DPP, and create her own party, the People’s Party (PP). Mutharika’s government grew increasingly autocratic, corrupt and repressive and the country was set to descent into a spiral of corruption, nepotism, economic mismanagement and diplomatic isolation. Relations with the UK were strained after the publication of a British diplomatic cable which lamented that Mutharika was increasingly autocratic and intolerant of criticism. The economy, which had been Mutharika’s strong suit in the first term, took a turn for the worse because of inflation and fuel shortages. Public protests in July 2011 killed 19 people after the police shot at unarmed demonstrators. In the fall, as the President shuffled his cabinet to include his wife and brother, international donors suspended all aid and projects in Malawi. In March 2012, the President threatened journalists or organizations critical of him with arrest or fines. In April 2012, however, Mutharika died suddenly of a heart attack.
According to the constitution, Banda was his legal successor, but the DPP tried everything they could to stop or delay the handover of power, in a bid to install Mutharika’s brother instead. However, lacking support from the army, judiciary, civil society and the international community, Banda was formally sworn in as President.
Banda’s presidency received international support, and international donors returned to Malawi. She made tackling waste and corruption one of the key issues in her government, repealed restrictive media laws passed by her predecessor, restored academic freedom, respected freedom of assembly and she suspended application of Malawi’s controversial laws which ban homosexual activities. She implemented reforms demanded by the IMF, devaluing the currency by 49%, and in exchange the IMF restored a $157 million loan to Malawi, which relies on foreign donors for about 40% of its budget. The devaluation led to major inflation and popular unrest against skyrocketing prices. In October 2013, Banda’s standing ahead of this year’s election was damaged by the revelation that $250 million had been stolen from the government by mid-level officials and civil servants. Foreign donors, losing confidence in the government, withheld portions of a quarterly aid package. Banda faced protests and demands for her resignation, but she instead fired and later re-appointed her cabinet, although she fired two ministers held responsible for the scandal (and the justice minister was later arrested for the murder of a finance department official who had investigated corruption in the government). The opposition parties accused of her complicity in theft, while she later said the revelation of the scandal was ‘her greatest achievement’ because she told ‘bold’ actions afterwards and said that she had turned the economy around.
Candidates and results
Joyce Banda ran for reelection as the candidate of her People’s Party (PP), which she founded upon her 2010 expulsion from the DPP. The DPP nominated Peter Mutharika, the brother of the late President who had served as his brother’s foreign minister from 2011 to 2012. Mutharika remains controversial for his role in the 2011-2012 crackdown on demonstrators and an academic freedom standoff with a university lecturer (questioned by police and later fired) who linked Malawian grievances to the Arab Spring. In 2013, Mutharika and 11 other officials were arrested and charged with treason for their role in the aftermath of Bingu wa Mutharika’s death in April 2012, where they allegedly plotted to unconstitutionally take power. Released on bail, the defendants pleaded not guilty at a preliminary trial hearing in November 2013. The UDF nominated Atupele Muluzi, the son of former President Bakili Muluzi. Muluzi had served in Banda’s cabinet, after having been a vocal opponent of Mutharika’s government. The MCP nominated its leader, Lazarus Chakwera, a conservative evangelical pastor; he is the first MCP presidential candidate who has no history of involvement or working with former dictator Hastings Banda.
Voting took place on May 20, with some hiccups and areas delayed for up to two days; the elections were ruled to be generally free and fair despite many problems. Initial results made it clear that Banda would not win reelection, a prospect which she didn’t accept gracefully at first. Banda initially claimed, outlandishly, that the opposition had rigged the election. The electoral commission made it clear that they would not be rushed to release results. On May 24, Banda scrapped the elections and ordered a re-vote within 90 days, in which she would not take part. However, the High Court injuncted the electoral commission against following the order and the army sided with the electoral process over Banda. The electoral commission then decided to recount all the votes, giving themselves 30 days to do so. Two separate injunctions were issued to bar the electoral commission from holding a recount. It became a terrible mess as the commission itself was divided on the path to follow, and agreed with the DPP to limit the scope of the recount to problem areas. On May 30, the High Court ruled that one of the injunctions was invalid, but at the same time it ruled that the time to conduct the recounts has expired. The electoral commission said that they felt that they couldn’t release results, due to obvious anomalies in the data, but decided to abide by court orders. The MCP is set to challenge the results in court. On May 31, the electoral commission announced that Peter Mutharika was the president-elect. Joyce Banda congratulated him and conceded defeat.
Turnout was 70.8%
Peter Mutharika (DPP) 36.4%
Lazarus Chakwera (MCP) 27.8%
Joyce Banda (PP) 20.2%
Atupele Muluzi (UDF) 13.7%
Parliamentary results have yet to be released, but initial indications showed that the MCP would win a plurality with about 67 seats against 44 for the DPP, 35 for the UDF, 12 for Banda’s PP and 24 independents. With defections from independents and the PP, it is possible that the President-elect’s DPP will manage to built itself a legislative majority.
With the electoral kerfuffle now over, Mutharika takes the reins of power under the shadow of a treason charge. It is unclear what he intends to do as President, besides vague promises for bottom-up economics to reduce poverty. He may choose to turn the tables on his predecessor, who did everything she could to prevent her enemy from being elected. Having claimed that the millions stolen from government coffers were used to fund the PP’s election campaign, she may be the one who faces corruption charges courtesy of the new President. Meanwhile, since he now enjoys immunity from prosecution, the charges against him will likely be dismissed.
Banda did not expect such a humiliating defeat, placing third in the results. It was unclear how well she would do in the election, although some said that she was the candidate to beat in the race. Banda was likely hurt by the corruption scandal and unpopular austerity policies she put in place to comply with IMF demands, and perhaps by the weak local bases of her party. If regional results are released, they will shed further light on what her electoral base was, and may tell us why she lost.
Traditionally, Malawian elections have been divided along ethnic lines, similar to elections in other African countries. Alliances between parties, such as the MCP-UDF alliance in 2009, aim to merge two parties’ regional bases of support. The Mutharika family is from the southern district of Thyolo, where his brother received 91% of the vote in the 2009 election. Joyce Banda was born in Zomba district, which is also in the south; the Muluzi family is from Machinga district, a largely Muslim Yao (Muluzi is Muslim) district south of Lake Malawi, Muluzi won over 90% of the vote there in 1994 and 1999 and the MCP-UDF alliance took 60% of the vote against Mutharika in the 2009 presidential election. The MCP’s traditional strongholds are in central Malawi, including the very populated area around the political capital of Lilongwe. Central Malawi is the birthplace of most MCP leaders, including Hastings Banda and John Tembo. The region voted against democracy in the 1993 referendum and has backed MCP candidates with strong margins in all elections since then, although in 2009, Mutharika won Hastings Banda’s native district and drew strong results (30-54%) in most central Malawian districts. The north, sparsely populated, has tended to back its local candidates when they were in the race, but in the absence thereof, they have tended to support non-MCP candidates – Mutharika received over 90% in the northern districts in 2009 and it had overwhelmingly voted for democracy in 1993.
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