Consolidating democracy in Malawi: A case of recycled elite pacts?

On June 28 Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) won the country’s presidential electoral rerun. He led a nine-party opposition coalition, the Tonse Alliance (Together Alliance). His running mate was the vibrant and popular Saulos Chilima, the leader of the United Transformation Movement (UTM). 

The Tonse victory appears to have consolidated the country’s democracy, at the same revealing redefined roles of a new consensus built on the judiciary, the military and civil society organisations. At first glance, Malawians have voted for the party they rejected in 1994 as part of their transition towards constitutionalism through multiparty democratic elections after 31 years of “death and darkness”. (On achieving independence in 1964, the prime minister and later president, Hastings Banda, declared Malawi a one-party state under the MCP.) 

Twenty-six years later, the MCP has benefited from the complex machinations and attempts to impose transitional leadership succession that have characterised Malawian politics for the past decade and a half. In 2004, president Bakili Muluzi of the United Democratic Front (UDF) acrimoniously ended his second tenure, after failing to amend the Constitution to allow him to run for a third term. After he left office, Muluzi foisted on his party — and country — the little-known former deputy governor of the Reserve bank of Malawi and later finance minister, Bingu wa Mutharika. This came at a time when the opposition was boycotting the electoral process. 

Within months, Wa Mutharika and Muluzi had fallen out, with corruption and treason charges levelled against the former president by the incumbent. Mutharika proceeded to form his own political party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), while sequestering legislators from the UDF. In April 2005, Muluzi went public, apologising to Malawians for having facilitated Wa Mutharika’s ascension to office. He was then forced to flee the country and went into self-exile in the United Kingdom until May 2008.

Early in his second term, Mutharika began planning for his successor, requesting that his DDP deputy vice-president of the country, Joyce Banda, step aside for his younger brother, law professor Peter wa Mutharika, who was teaching in the United States at the time. Banda resisted and was unceremoniously removed from the party and government and forced to stay at home; she immediately formed her own party, the People’s Party. 

On April 5 2012, the unexpected happened. President Bingu wa Mutharika had a cardiac arrest and died. Thereafter, the DPP  discovered that the Constitution provided for the vice-president, in this instance Joyce Banda, to take over, which she did. In the ensuing chaos, allegations emerged that key DPP officials had asked that either the attorney general or the commander of the defence forces, General Henry Odillo, take over the running of the country for a time to prevent Banda from assuming power. 

In the presence of the police inspector general, Peter Mukhito, Odillo refused. Banda was able to succeed Bingu wa Mutharika and serve out the remaining term until the May 2014 elections. The DPP reorganised, with Peter Mutharika as the leader, and won the May 2014 poll. Meanwhile, an internal corruption case, the “Cashgate scandal”, had embroiled Joyce Banda’s administration, resulting in the loss of public confidence and the possibility of arrest and detention. She fled the country into four years of self-imposed exile. 

Peter Mutharika became president in May 2014 and, within weeks of his inauguration, Odillo was relieved of his duties. No explanation was provided, but it was clearly tied up with the recalcitrant position he took in 2012. In the run-up to and beyond the May 2019 elections, Mutharika continued attempting to retain the services of a discredited Malawi Electoral Commission, confronting and attempting to forcibly retire members of the judiciary and the military. Senior officers had to approach the courts to block the presidential decrees, and were successful in these efforts.

As the country prepared for the 2019 polls, Mutharika fell out with his deputy and vice-president, Chilima. As had become fashionable, Chilima also established his own party, the UTM, that is reported to have connected with the young people across the nation, particularly in urban areas. 

The May 28 2019 election result, later criticised by the courts as “The Tippex Election”, had the DPP winning with 38.57%; the MCP and the UTM gained 35.41% and 20.24% of the vote, respectively. The two losing parties, the MCP and UTM together with the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) approached the courts, citing irregularities. One of their criticisms was about the role played by the electoral commission director, Jane Ansah, who was accused of being partisan and biased. The electoral commission and the governing DPP appealed against the injunction.

But the high court of Malawi, in its verdict of the May 2019 election, overturned the results. 

It was clear that, to defeat the incumbent, the opposition parties had to reach an accommodation of sorts before the polls — an elite pact. As the elections approached, it was evident that Chilima would be the kingmaker between the governing DPP and the old, established MCP.

The short history of the Tonse Alliance, whose main leaders marched on the streets on March 12 2020  and since been inaugurated in power by June, reflects an entity emerging from a shot-gun wedding whose lasting endurance remains to be tested. This is because the marriage of convenience emerged from a sober evaluation of the losing percentages in the May election against the narrow victory of the  incumbent, Peter Mutharika. On this the sums were obvious; if the two combined then they would dislodge Mutharika. The losing parties were reacting to the 150 day cooling period before the presidential re-run opportunity offered by the court ruling succeeding to gain office as the logical outcome. 

The question is: How deep is this relationship and will it combine the ideological idiosyncrasies and constituencies of the MCP and UTM?

Significantly, as part of his new appointments, including a vice-president, minister of economic planning and public sector reform, and minister of finance, Chakwera has also removed the  partisan acting police inspector, Duncan Mwapasa, and installed George Kainja with instructions to clean up the battered image of the police.

What has the Malawi election delivered? An entity that comprises a complex elite sits in the political saddle, while providing an opportunity for the judiciary, the electoral commission and the military to act in concert towards consolidating democracy in the country.  

As Malawians rush into the streets to celebrate, they must be aware of the implications of what the poll has delivered, and keep a watchful eye on the extent the actors remain true to their ideal of acting as servant leaders.

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Martin Rupiya
Professor Martin Rupiya (PhD) is the innovation and training manager in the operations department of the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes

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