Malawi puts democracy to the test with fresh elections

Africa is a special continent. After nearly seven years, we thought we were somewhat used to it. Yet, these two Dutchies continue to be amazed. I don’t know if you followed any of it, but Malawi is going through an interesting period of democracy. In this blog you’ll read a bit more about the political history and especially about what made the past year so special.

After the region was known under the British flag as British Central Africa and later as Nyasaland (nyasa means ‘lake’), Malawi was declared independent in 1964. Until 1993, Malawi was led by Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who proclaimed himself to be President For Life in 1971. He was highly educated and developed himself further during his years in the United States, the United Kingdom and Ghana, among others, before returning to Malawi. His presidency soon showed signs of a dictatorship, and many began to fear him. There was just one radio station and they only told his story. It was compulsory to display his portrait in all government and business buildings. It was even forbidden to have a clock, poster or other photo higher on the wall than the photo of “His Excellency”. There were all kinds of dress codes for women, and men should not have longer hair than the collar. If this was the case with foreign visitors, they were first forced to get a haircut at the border before they were allowed to enter. If you expressed your concerns about the President, you were arrested on the spot.

Hastings Kamuzu Banda

President Banda was a controversial figure in Malawian history

Time for change

International pressure increased under the leadership of organizations like Amnesty International. When the Church also expressed a desire for change, more and more revolts took place in the country. On 14th June 1993, the people finally had the opportunity to vote for or against a multi-party democratic system during a referendum. An overwhelming majority voted in favor, with fair elections on 17th May 1994 as a result. Dr Muluzi won and one of his primary duties as President, was to re-write the constitution.

False hope

We fast forward a few years to 2014, when Peter Mutharika won the elections. He was a favorite because of his impressive CV. In addition, he used to be the advisor to his much-loved older brother, who served as President from 2004 until he passed away in 2012. Vice President Joyce Banda then automatically became Malawi’s first female President, but she didn’t get enough votes to remain in office during the new elections in 2014.

Unfortunately, as is often the case, Peter Mutharika did not turn out to be the President everyone had hoped for. Corruption got out of hand under his leadership. Slowly and gradually, until it was too late and Malawi couldn’t just go back.

Peter Mutharika

President Mutharika turned out to be a disappointment for many

Time for change, again

The whole country was looking forward to the May 2019 elections. Even Mutharika’s Vice President, Dr Saulos Chilima, had left to found his own party. In addition, the popularity of opposition leader Dr Lazarus Chakwera grew. Many hoped for a new government in which Chakwera and Chilima would work well together. However, Mutharika won the election.

Soon rumors arose that the results had been tampered with. Obviously Mutharika denied this and he mainly hid behind the fact that several international committees had checked the elections. If, among others, the EU and the UN say that everything went according to the rules, it should be fine, right? Well, apparently not. The West had once again overlooked a little too much and fortunately opposition leaders Chakwera and Chilima insisted on getting answers.

Vice President Chilima

Vice President Chilima decided to found his own party

Long and detailed investigations

It turned out that all sorts of things went wrong during both the voting and counting processes. The biggest scandal was the stack of district results which were corrected with Tipp-Ex. All in favor of Mutharika … At first everyone laughed at Mutharika, because this clearly showed his fraud. But soon it turned out to be a huge challenge to get him to step down. Both the electoral committee and almost the entire government insisted that everything was handled properly and that Mutharika was the rightful President. Meanwhile, even his own supporters in the country began to scratch their heads. More and more peaceful democracies were being organized everywhere, while the opposition tried all kinds of things to enforce the law.

A variety of investigations showed more and more evidence and in the end even the international committees had to admit that they had “missed” a few things.

Peaceful protests

Peaceful protests throughout the country

An eventful court case

It was no longer possible to get out of a lawsuit. For three months, the five suddenly famous judges were driven around daily with army tanks. Heavy security (including camouflage suits and helmets decorated with branches, in the middle of the city) was necessary, because tensions in the country were rising. Demonstrations became less and less calm, but never really got out of hand. Malawians remain a peaceful people, but they were extremely angry. Mutharika’s despair became most apparent when the judges announced that someone had tried to bribe them. Fortunately, they resisted the temptation!

The court finally ruled on 3rd February: the elections were declared invalid. The government was given 150 days to bring out the ballot boxes again and until then, Mutharika would remain President. He immediately appealed, of course, but failed. He then tried to postpone new elections because of a lack of finances, but this was resolved. His next attempt was to make up numbers of COVID-19 infections, but the people were determined to vote again.

A victory for democracy

On 23rd June, the time had come. The preparations turned out to be challenging, because a new electoral committee was only appointed a month in advance. Due to the corona crisis, all kinds of international organizations were unable to attend. After all, most “charities” had fled to their home countries earlier this year. Fortunately, Malawians aren’t afraid of a challenge. Instead of international monitors, community leaders were appointed to oversee the voting process. And especially to make sure that Tipp-Ex never got anywhere near the ballots!

Counting the votes

Manually counting the votes was not an easy task

Processing the votes took longer than usual. They were careful and did not want to make any mistakes. People were afraid that Mutharika had done something again. That would almost certainly result in some kind of civil war. Tension in the country grew again until Saturday night 27th June, when the results were announced. I don’t know what happened in the rest of the country, but here in Lilongwe it was an explosion of cheerful shouting when Chakwera was named new president. He and Chilima had decided during their campaigning to in a way merge their parties, so that they had an even greater chance against Mutharika. With result! This small African country can be proud.

New President Chakwera

The expectations of Malawi’s new President Chakwera are high

And now?

The new government is expected to fairly soon take measures to give the economy a much-needed boost. We ourselves particularly have confidence in Chilima, who again is the Vice President. He has a business background and seems to know what he wants for the country. Moreover, he understands the major role tourism can play for the economy. At 47, he is still a youngster in politics, so chances are he has put his ego aside this time, only to become President himself at any of the following elections!


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