Home | About Us | News Feeds RSS | Subscribe | Support Us | User Login | Search

Southern Africa Report Archive

"For 30 years, "Life President" Hastings Kamuzu Banda held an iron grip on Malawi. No one could have predicted that within a short period of time, between 1992 and 1994, the brutal dictatorship would peacefully transfer power to a democratically elected opposition party in a process often hailed as a model democratic transition. Yet despite the remarkable initial success, there has been very little progress since President Bakili Muluzi and the United Democratic Front (UDF) assumed power." (jbv)

vol 15 no 4

The trouble with democracy
Stephen Brown

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, VOL 15 NO 4, October 2000,
Page 19



Stephen Brown is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto's Department of Political Science. His Ph.D. dissertation analyzed foreign aid and democratization in Sub-Saharan Africa, focusing on Malawi and Kenya.

For 30 years, "Life President" Hastings Kamuzu Banda held an iron grip on Malawi. No one could have predicted that within a short period of time, between 1992 and 1994, the brutal dictatorship would peacefully transfer power to a democratically elected opposition party in a process often hailed as a model democratic transition. Yet despite the remarkable initial success, there has been very little progress since President Bakili Muluzi and the United Democratic Front (UDF) assumed power.

The June 1999 elections

Malawian electoral campaigns are generally without substance. On economic and social policy, for example, the various parties' platforms are almost identical. All agree on the need for macroeconomic reform, poverty alleviation, improved health care and education, and so on. With little to distinguish them, they essentially fall back on personalities and run very negative campaigns in which regional affiliation gains much importance. Only three parties are represented in parliament and one is dominant in each of the three regions: the Alliance for Democracy (AFORD) in the North, the Malawi Congress Party (MCP, the former single party) in the Centre and the UDF in the South. None can win a parliamentary majority on its own. Effective rule therefore requires either a stable coalition of two parties or a number of defections to the governing party.

The prelude to the 1999 electoral campaign was not auspicious. In July 1998, President Muluzi unconstitutionally sacked the Electoral Commission (which is ostensibly an independent body) and unilaterally appointed new members. Suspicions of bias were subsequently fuelled when, in February 1999, the new commission announced the creation of 70 new constituencies of which 42 (or 60%) were in the UDF-dominated South. This caused an uproar and earned the scepticism of Western bilateral donors who were financing a large part of the cost of the poll. The commission then backed down, creating only 17 new constituencies (nine in the South and eight in the Central Region).

Further worries over the Electoral Commission's partisanship emerged in March 1999 when it refused to allow the MCP and AFORD to present a joint slate - ostensibly their only chance to defeat Muluzi. The High Court overruled the commission, since the constitution was silent on the matter of naming running mates from different parties and there was no law impeding it. The commission appealed, even though it was supposed to be a neutral, disinterested party, but the Supreme Court upheld the lower court's decision in May.

Because of delays in voter registration, the commission postponed the elections from May 18 to May 25, then to June 15. In the presidential poll, the opposition alliance obtained sizable majorities in the Northern and Central regions, while Muluzi obtained over three-quarters of the votes in the South (see Table 1). Significant support for Muluzi in the Central Region allowed him to barely achieve a majority of votes nationally.


Table 1 - Results of June 1999 presidential election (percentage of popular vote per candidate by region)

Region   Muluzi   Chakuamba   Other
          UDF     MCP/AFORD    (3)

North     9%        88%        2%
Centre   35%        61%        2%
South    77%        18%        3%

Total    51%        44%        2%

The simultaneous parliamentary vote produced even more regionally concentrated results (see Table 2). As in 1994, the South's large population and therefore the highest number of constituencies gave the UDF a plurality but not a majority in parliament.


Table 2 - Results of the June 1999 parliamentary elections (number and percentage of seats by region)

Region     UDF       MCP     AFORD   Independent  TOTAL

North    1 (3%)    4 (12%)  28 (85%)   0 (0%)    33 (100%)
Centre  16 (22%)  54 (75%)   1 (1%)    1 (1%)    72 (100%)
South   76 (87%)   8 (9%)    0 (0%)    3 (3%)    87 (100%)
Total   93 (48%)  66 (34%)  29 (15%)   4 (2%)   192 (100%)

Muluzi and the governing party benefited from a number of grossly unfair advantages of incumbency. For instance, the strong pro-UDF bias of the state-run radio network was particularly evident during the electoral campaign. Indeed, one week before the elections, the High Court ordered the Electoral Commission to ensure that fair coverage be provided to all parties, but no change was subsequently observed.

Polling unfairness also facilitated the UDF's re-election. Though large-scale fraud has not been proven, the elections themselves were marred by many technical problems and unexplained irregularities, including insufficient registration materials and faulty ballot papers in the opposition-inclined Central and Northern regions. By the Electoral Commission's own admission, over 100,000 people, mainly in those two regions, were unable to vote due to a lack of registration materials. Had these voters not been disenfranchised, they might have altered the outcome of the presidential election, since Muluzi won a majority of only about 65,000 votes. As a result, four of the nine electoral commissioners would not certify the results. Although some international observers (of which there were few) condemned the elections outright, the main ones declared them "largely free and fair." Western donors remained silent.

The UDF subsequently gained two seats at the MCP's expense, one when the High Court overturned an MCP victory in a constituency in the Central Region, the other in a by-election. When the four independents defected to the UDF, the speaker of parliament, Sam Mpasu (a top UDF official), refused to rule that they had crossed the floor, which would have triggered by-elections in their constituencies. As a result, the ruling party soon controlled 99 seats to the opposition alliance's 93 (MCP 64, AFORD 29), giving it a legislative majority.

The opposition is currently trying to have the judiciary order a rerun of the presidential elections, based on two grounds: the definition of "the electorate" and alleged fraud. The former is contested because the constitution stipulates that "The President shall be elected by a majority of the electorate," but it is unclear whether this refers to registered voters or people who actually voted. Since Muluzi obtained a majority of the actual votes cast (51%) but only a plurality of registered voters (48%), the legitimacy of Muluzi's presidency is at stake. After long delays on technical grounds, a High Court judge ruled in May 2000 that only a majority of actual votes was required. The opposition alliance indicated that it would appeal to the Supreme Court. The allegations of fraud have not yet been ruled on.

Executive power

There have been many cases where the government - especially the executive - acts above the law, even unconstitutionally, and there is no body to which it can then be held accountable. For instance, most of Muluzi's cabinet ministers are chosen from parliament. In October 1997, however, a High Court judge ruled that one could not constitutionally hold two public offices at the same time. This clearly implied that those ministers who were also elected to parliament were therefore no longer also MPs. Rather than appeal or comply, the government simply ignored the decision.

The Malawi parliament is officially composed of the National Assembly and the Senate - a rare case of bicameralism in Africa. When implemented, the Senate will be constituted of district-based, indirectly elected representatives of chiefs, women's organizations, trade unions, farming and business interests, the disabled, religious groups and other special groups. The constitution stipulates that the Senate was to have been established in May 1999. However, the government has not yet acted, presumably (and plausibly) fearing that the UDF would not command a majority in the Senate, thereby reducing the ruling party's power.

In another example, the government (illegally) dissolved local government bodies in 1995. In spite of a constitutional obligation to hold local elections that year, the government has repeatedly postponed them. Currently, they are scheduled for November 21, 2000. In the meantime, local government is under executive control. There are no mayors or councillors, only civil servants and the Ministry of Local Government. The government has repeatedly cited economic reasons for not holding elections, but it is really a question of political will, since Western donors have offered to cover the expenses. It is likely that the UDF fears losing control of the local authorities in the Central and Northern regions, thereby giving the opposition new power bases. To compensate, the government considered holding the elections without the participation of political parties, as is the controversial practice in Uganda. However, it abandoned the proposal after the main opposition parties strongly opposed this unconstitutional measure.

Individual cabinet ministers also act with impunity. Muluzi is indebted to many of his supporters and bound by the politics of patronage. For that reason, Muluzi's cabinet is very large (33 ministers). Many powerful members continue to hold their positions despite well-publicized corruption scandals. Donors have protested certain flagrant cases of corruption, notably those involving cabinet minister Brown Mpinganjira, but did nothing when the practices continued. The Anti-Corruption Bureau revealed in early 2000 that it was investigating finance minister Cassim Chilumpha over tender irregularities. Donor pressure led Muluzi to remove him from his position. However, rather than drop him from the cabinet, Muluzi assigned him the education portfolio instead.

The political economy of reform

Despite its fundamental importance, the issue of economic reform has hardly been raised domestically. In fact, the transition from authoritarianism to electoral democracy has not modified the tenor of Malawi's structural adjustment programs, implemented at the behest of the IMF and the World Bank since 1981, with the support of the United States and other bilateral donors.

Overall, the World Bank and the IMF consider the Malawian economy relatively successful, especially for lowering interest rates and bringing down inflation. Indeed, a number of important measures have been taken to liberalize the economy, including the elimination of subsidies and tariffs and the liberalization of business licensing for small traders. However, compliance with other requirements remains erratic, especially the overall reduction of government expenditures. For instance, the government has failed to reduce the size of the cabinet and has even dramatically raised the salaries and allowances of ministers, deputy ministers and permanent secretaries. Instead, it decided in 1998 to end the public funding of 21 institutions, such as the Human Rights Commission, which were already severely resource-deprived. In spite of slow and partial government compliance and the increasingly recognized problem of corruption, the Bretton Woods institutions are reluctant to carry out their threats to cut aid. In August 2000, for example, the IMF granted Malawi a waiver in order to maintain assistance despite the accumulation of arrears in loan repayment.

The Malawian economy has been in continual crisis since the early 1980s, worsening in recent years, despite considerable support from donors. Per capita GNP has dropped from an annual average of US$233 before the transition (199193) to $190 in 199499, while periodic currency devaluations have stoked inflation. The economy faces colossal challenges. There is a recognized need to move away from tobacco, which provides about 70% of export earnings, yet it is hard to find a lucrative substitute in order to diversify. The elimination of tariffs has hurt local industry since it is not competitive. In theory, agricultural deregulation - being able to choose which crops to grow and to whom to sell them - will increase incomes. In practice, the benefit to smallholders appears to be marginal; profits seem to accrue mainly to the new middleman.

A number of structural weaknesses plague the Malawian economy: a very narrow export base (mainly tobacco, tea and coffee, subject to international price fluctuations and local climatological conditions), heavy dependence on imports, stagnant smallholder agricultural production, and inefficient public planning and resource management. Under the new government, food production is actually declining, due to periodic drought, insufficient access to credit, difficulties in repaying past loans and the phasing-out of agricultural subsidies. Certain roads have deteriorated so much they are now impassable, cutting some of the peasantry off from the market and forcing them to return to subsistence agriculture. Indeed, the operation of market forces is highly problematic in Malawi, since there are few large players and poor dissemination of information, allowing tobacco buyers, for instance, to act like a cartel. In addition, most peasants are unable to afford fertilizer and other farm inputs, since IMF pressure persuaded the government to remove remaining farming-related subsidies in 1995. The government has since tried to convince donors that to solve chronic food shortages it is less expensive to subsidize fertilizer than import maize. However, donors have opposed subsidizing agriculture out of principle, preferring to provide food aid when urgently required.

Structural adjustment has also undermined the underpinnings of democratization by cutting (already low) expenditures in education, health care and social services. For example, the government raised hospital fees by up to 400% in September 1997, rendering health care inaccessible to many. In July 2000, the government raised annual tuition fees at the University of Malawi by 3,000%, from $54 to $1,672 (about eight times per capita GDP). Social safety-net provisions are vastly insufficient in the amounts and duration of support.

In sum, the government has failed to meet the expectations for improved living standards that accompanied democratization. Against the nostrums of economic liberalization, which advocate a decreased role for the state, greater political freedom appears to have been accompanied by a demand for more public intervention, not less: the poor majority seeks greater assistance from the state, especially in the economic sphere and including wage increases, price controls, job creation and land allocation. Nonetheless, the state cannot and/or will not satisfy these needs. It does not have the financial or organizational resources, government spokespersons argue, while suggesting further that such measures would undermine structural adjustment, thereby displeasing donors and risking a further reduction in aid.

Under such circumstances, it is difficult to be optimistic about the economic future of Malawi. Free trade in the Southern African region could totally de-industrialize the country since it has no comparative advantage in anything: it is landlocked, has the worst transportation system, the least skilled population, and amongst the most malnourished (hunger makes for low productivity) in the region. For Malawi, the future will probably look a lot like the past: growing export crops on a large scale, while its inhabitants provide a market and a pool of wage-starved labour for its neighbours.

A look ahead

Multiparty democracy has transformed the Malawian political scene. Most notably, civil liberties have increased dramatically. Nevertheless, many autocratic practices remain. The 1999 national elections were less than free and fair, while local elections and the establishment of the Senate have been unconstitutionally postponed. The executive retains a very strong hold on power and established checks and balances are not proving effective in restraining it or holding it accountable (marking continuity with the past rather than a break from it). In many instances, the executive does not respect constitutional provisions and judicial decisions.

It is difficult to develop a party system ex nihilo, of course. That Malawi has developed a coherent and reasonably functional party system is an achievement in itself. Moreover, the current three-party structure might seem promising for the development of competitive politics. Nonetheless, the ruling party - as well as the parties in opposition - appear to be motivated more by a desire to benefit from power and the economic opportunities it provided than to implement positive policy reform, including further democratization. In doing so, these parties also have been tempted to seek expansion of their popular bases by relying upon ethno-regional discourses that merely help deepen the cleavages that already exist.

To conclude, Malawi faces the major challenge of building new democratic institutions and practices and even a democratic culture in a context of enduring neopatrimonialism, widespread poverty (creating such related problems as low levels of literacy, education and health), continued economic stagnation, weak civic organizations, limited participation and accountability, and profit-seeking politicians. Meanwhile, living conditions have not improved in the post-authoritarian era. Already, multipartyism is being associated with higher food and fertilizer prices, maize shortages, deteriorating infrastructure, high inflation and a tumbling exchange rate. All this may make support for democracy increasingly tenuous.

- 30 -
Printable Version

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer(s) and not do necessarily reflect the views of the AfricaFiles' editors and network members. They are included in our material as a reflection of a diversity of views and a variety of issues. Material written specifically for AfricaFiles may be edited for length, clarity or inaccuracies.

     top of page