Opposition win in rerun presidential poll sees Malawi score first in Africa

Monday June 29 2020

Malawi’s new president Lazarus Chakwera. PHOTO | AMOS GUMULIRA | AFP


On Saturday, June 27, Malawi became the first African country where a presidential election rerun — on June 23 — was won by the opposition.

On February 3, Malawi became the second African country after Kenya, where a constitutional court nullified a presidential poll (May 21, 2019), although the ruling party in Kenya went on to win the repeat election that the Opposition boycotted.

Malawi’s unprecedented political feat sprang from eight powerful forces. First, it is a tribute to the protracted and unrelenting struggle of its people for democratic governance.

For a year, they persevered with mass demonstrations against the wanton theft of their votes despite threats and repression by the government. They were tired of the crass, corrupt, inept, and ethnocentric leadership of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), in power since 2004, save for a brief interlude. The two-year interval was the presidency of Joyce Banda following the death of Bingu wa Mutharika in April, 2012, and the election of Peter Mutharika, Bingu’s brother, in May, 2014.


This reflects, secondly, Malawi’s political culture of collective nationalist pride that goes back to decolonisation. No region or ethnic group claims ownership of the independence struggle.


The nationalist movement fought on two fronts, against British colonialism and against settler colonialism of the Central African Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.  

Malawi was the poorest of the three colonies in the federation that included Zambia (Northern Rhodesia) and Zimbabwe (Southern Rhodesia). It was a labour reserve of Southern Africa, a political economy that gave rise simultaneously to a regionalist and nationalist outlook, a propensity to embrace regional developments and forge a distinctive national path.

In the struggles for democratisation for the “second independence” in the 1980s and early 1990s, Malawi’s political culture was buoyed by the emergence of strong social movements.

These movements coalesced most prominently around the Public Affairs Committee (PAC) and the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC). Formed in 1992 as a pressure group of religious communities and other forces, PAC became a highly respected and influential political actor. While it functioned as a civil interlocutor for democracy, the HRDC flexed its political muscles in organising mass protests.

Complementing political culture, thirdly, is political socialisation. As in much of Africa, regional and ethnic political mobilisation and polarisation have deepened since independence as the capacities of the political class to deliver the developmental and democratic promises of “uhuru” declined and their appetites for primitive accumulation escalated. However, the nationalist memories and aspirations for nation-building lingered.

The DPP’s openly ethnocentric and exclusionary regime became deeply resented. The country’s robust media, both the traditional and new social media, provided ample space to vent against the intensifying regional, ethnic, and religious divides.


Reinforcing the complex and contradictory dynamics and demands of the country’s political culture and political socialisation was, fourth, the emergence of a fiercely independent judiciary.

Not only was the judgment of the Constitutional Court annulling the presidential election unanimous, it was upheld by the Supreme Court on May 8, against an appeal by the DPP and the Malawi Electoral Commission. Most critical was the ruling that the winner in a presidential elections should amass over 50 per cent of the valid votes cast.

At a stroke, a fatal dagger was struck at the heart of regional and ethnic politics, of the DPP’s electoral shenanigans, for no party could any longer win by only mobilising its base.

The opposition parties, led by the independence party, the Malawi Congress Party, and the recently formed United Transformation Movement, quickly entered into a powerful alliance. The DPP also forged an alliance with the party that had won the first democratic election of 1994, the United Democratic Party, from which the DPP split.

Efforts by the DPP government to fire the Chief Justice and his deputy a little over a week before the elections provoked national, regional and global outrage. The legal community in the country went on unprecedented nationwide demonstrations, which utterly humiliated DPP leader Peter Mutharika, a lawyer educated at the University of London and Yale University who taught for more than four decades in Tanzania, Ethiopia, and the US.


The strength of the Opposition movement against the DPP’s kleptocratic and dynastic rule was facilitated, fifth, by a generational shift in the country’s politics. Like most African countries, Malawi’s population is predominantly young. The median age of the country’s 20.1 million people is 16.5, with 66.7 per cent below the age of 24.

This means the vast majority of the country’s population has no memories of Dr Kamuzu Banda, the founding president, and his dictatorial regime from 1964 to 1994. What they know is the ineptitude and putrescence of the governments of the Mutharika brothers.

Ravaged by poverty, unemployment, and underemployment the youth are hungry for more accountable and development-oriented government. They were the backbone of the widespread protests that rocked the country following the rigged May, 2019 election.

They were particularly galvanised by the charismatic Vice-President, Dr Saulos Chilima, who was born nine years after Malawi’s independence. They could not relate to President Mutharika, born in 1940.

The new government represents a generational shift in several ways. The new president, Dr Lazarus Chakwera, was born in the twilight years of colonialism and came of age after independence. All his predecessors were products of colonialism, from which they inherited some of their perverted political and psychological dispositions. He is also the first graduate of the country’s first university, the University of Malawi, to ascend to the presidency. The first president, born in the 1890s, received his university education in the US and Britain; the second and fourth didn’t attend university; the third and fifth also went to overseas institutions as they grew up when Malawi had no university.

President Chakwera’s election might  also represent the end of the diaspora allure and grip over the Malawi presidency started by Dr Banda. President Banda returned to Malawi to join the nationalist movement after spending 43 years abroad. The Mutharika brothers returned to rule, also after decades in the diaspora. Presidents Bakili Muluzi (1994-2004) and Joyce Banda (2012-2014) were home -grown. So is President Chakwera, although he did graduate studies in the US. The diaspora will, of course, continue to play a role in Malawian politics, economy and society, but I suspect no longer at the level of the presidency.


The role of the diaspora noted above underscores the sixth context of Malawian politics and transitions, namely, the impact of external developments. It is possible to argue that the Constitutional Court was inspired by the nullification of the presidential election in Kenya in 2017. Earlier, in the 1990s, during the struggle for democratisation, Malawi’s opposition movement was invigorated by the ouster of President Kenneth Kaunda in 1991 in neighbouring Zambia through a democratic election, as well as the momentous end  of apartheid in South Africa. 

More recently, two developments have cast their shadows on the Malawian political and developmental imagination. First, is the meltdown of Zimbabwe under President Robert Mugabe, a spiral that has continued under his successor, President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Zimbabwe was once a major destination for Malawian migrant workers and which, in the first decade of independence, was seen as a model of democratic developmentalism, notwithstanding the heavy structural legacies of settler colonial capitalism.

Second was the relatively impressive economic growth of Malawi’s neighbours, from Tanzania in the north, Zambia in the west, and formerly war-torn Mozambique enveloping the southern part of the country.

Further afield was Botswana, one of Africa’s most impressive stories of post-colonial success. My  family has  roots and relatives in all these countries, Our family story is quite common among Malawians. This partly explains the intolerance for petty ethnic identities.

Given Malawi’s regional tentacles generated by the history of migrant labour, reinforced by the transport and communication networks of a land-locked country, and the thick circuits of contemporary media, many Malawians are acutely aware of regional developments. They are frustrated and angered that their country seems to be lagging behind their southern African neighbours in terms of development. They blame it on poor leadership and bad governance.

The professionalism of the military is the seventh critical factor in Malawi’s remarkable electoral transition. Since independence and at crucial moments, they have consistently maintained loyalty to the Constitution, not the president as commander-in-chief. They did so in 1992 during the referendum on multi-party democracy and in the subsequent two years. Similarly, in 2012, they facilitated the ascendancy of estranged Vice-President Joyce Banda when a DPP cabal, led by President Peter Mutharika, were planning an unconstitutional takeover. From  the annulment of the 2019 election to the rerun, they provided security for peaceful protests. And the moment it became clear that Dr Chakwera was the incoming president, they beefed up state security for him.

The coronavirus pandemic provided the eighth context against DPP rule. As elsewhere, Covid-19 exposed the glaring incapacities of the state and the depth of socioeconomic inequalities in the country. When the government sought to impose a lockdown in April to contain the spread of the pandemic, the HRDC went to court and won an injunction against the move,  arguing that the government had not undertaken consultations or provided measures to cushion the poor and most vulnerable against the impact of the lockdown.

Protests by small-scale traders, most of them young people, demanded government support in terms of cash handouts and food to help them manage the harsh effects of a lockdown. Underlying these protests was general lack of faith in the government’s capacity to manage the crisis, which fed into the narrative of government corruption and incompetence.

In short, there was little trust in the state, which is likely to lead to the devastation of the economy and society as the pandemic spreads.

Clearly, the opposition rode to election victory on the back of widespread dissatisfaction and disaffection with Malawi’s democratic dispensation since 1994.

Dr Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is Vice-Chancellor, United States

International University-Africa