In conceding defeat to Peter Mutharika, the candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Malawi’s president Joyce Banda earlier this week reinforced the stability of her country’s burgeoning democracy by establishing yet another precedent of a peaceful transfer of power, bringing to an end a feisty and competitive four-way election campaign.
But it’s difficult to be too sanguine about the country’s future prospects, given that the election has returned to power the brother of a former president whose administration sank under accusations of widespread corruption, repression, mismanagement and even, in its final days, treason.
Banda, formerly Malawi’s vice president, became president only in April 2012 following the death of Bingu wa Mutharika, the current president-elect’s late brother — and following a significant behind-the-scenes effort to deny the presidency to Banda, who had fallen out with the Mutharikas and was ejected from the DPP in 2010 when the then-president tried to eject Banda from the vice presidency in favor of his brother.
As Malawi’s electoral system doesn’t feature a runoff, the winner of the election is by plurality in a multi-candidate field — that means that more than six out of 10 Malawian voters chose a presidential candidate other than Peter Mutharika (pictured above). Though Malawians might not necessarily be excited about Mutharika, they were less excited about Banda, who placed third behind Lazarus Chakwera, a charismatic former preacher and the 24-year head of the Malawi Assemblies of God, and only narrowly led the fourth-place candidate, Atupele Muluzi, the son of a former president:
The sick man of southern Africa?
Malawi, with a population of 15.3 million, is the fourth-most populous country in southern Africa after South Africa, Mozambique and Angola. Formerly Nyasaland, it joined what is now Zambia and Zimbabwe as of the British-ruled Central African Federation before gaining its independence in 1964. Demographically, it is comprised of a mix of ethnic groups, with a Christian majority of around 70% and a Muslim minority of around 25%.
With neither oil wealth nor the riches of metal or precious stones, Malawi’s economy remains, to this day, largely agricultural, and over 50% of the country’s exports are tobacco or tobacco-related products. That makes it one of the poorest nations on the planet.
In its first three decades as an independent nation, Malawi was a one-party state ruled by Hastings Banda, a pro-Western, repressive autocrat who continued to support South Africa’s apartheid government throughout the 1980s. In the Banda (no relation to Joyce Banda) era, opposition figures were routinely killed or imprisoned, and no parties were permitted other than Banda’s own Malawi Congress Party (MCP), which benefitted as the movement that ushered Malawian independence. Banda was declared president-for-life in 1971, and he ruled Malawi well into his nineties. Under pressure from the country’s eight courageous Catholic bishops, who first called for Malawi’s political opening in 1992, and later, under increasing pressure from donor countries, Banda conceded a referendum on permitting multi-party democracy in 1993, and he later lost national elections in 1994.
Those elections brought Malawi’s first peaceful transfer of power –to Bakili Muluzi, the leader of the United Democratic Front (UDF), a member of the Yao ethnic group in the southern half of the country, making him Malawi’s first Muslim leader. After three decades of rule from within Banda’s Chewa ethnic group, Malawi’s largest (around 33% of the population), concentrated in the center of the county, in an around the Malawian capital of Lilongwe. But, as so often in many countries, a new regime brought to power a new elite hungry for the fruits of power. Muluzi’s two terms in power were marked by economic mismanagement (most notably during a 2002 famine) and relative corruption (Muluzi tried to change the constitution to allow for reelection to a third term). He’s currently under investigation for corruption, which explains why his son ran for the presidency this year.
The 2004 election brought to power Bingu wa Mutharika, a member of the Lomwe ethnic group that dominates the southwest of Malawi. The Lomwe, Malawi’s second largest ethnic group, is just barely more numerous (around 17.5% of the population) than the Yao (around 13.5% of the population). Mutharika founded the DPP after breaking with Muluzi and the UDF. Despite a relatively strong first term, which won international plaudits for Malawi’s breakneck economic growth, Mutharika seemed to backtrack on all fronts in his second term. His government became known for increasing censorship, a breakdown in academic freedom, greater corruption, higher unemployment and lower GDP growth — and that’s all in addition to his ham-fisted attempt to replace Banda with his own brother, and the DPP’s attempt to block Banda from assuming the presidency in 2012 upon Mutharika’s death from a heart attack. Peter Mutharika, who served briefly as foreign minister in his brother’s government, personally faces treason charges stemming from what Banda’s government called an ‘attempted coup,’ charges that will now likely be dropped.
Generally speaking, Banda (pictured above) did about as well as could be imagined for a president with relatively little support, running from her newly created People’s Party (PP). Her efforts to reintroduce budgetary discipline, eliminate fuel subsidies, allow the currency’s value to drop and restore many political freedoms led to the return much of Malawi’s aid, and she deployed capital to many rural development projects in her two years in office. But her administration was tarnished by the revelation of ‘Cashgate,’ a scandal whereby Malawian civil servants were found to have skimmed $250 million in funds for personal use. Those revelations, once again, caused alarm among donor countries, whose aid provides nearly 40% of Malawi’s budget.
The Mutharika resurgence
No one knows whether Banda and her family and associates benefited from the Cashgate scandal, but she could easily face corruption charges now that Mutharika and her DPP enemies are once again in power. Banda has argued that the scandal marks her finest moment, given that she didn’t cover up the matter and instead referred it to Malawi’s judiciary. Ironically, it could turn out that Cashgate had its origins under Mutharika, not Banda.
It’s likely that voting broke, at least partially, on ethnic lines, with Mutharika and the DPP drawing support from the southern Lomwe, Muluzi and the UDF drawing support from the Muslim Yao, and Chakwera and the MCP drawing support from the Chewa. Banda, who is also Yao, likely split the Muslim vote with Muluzi. As noted above, Mutharika will take power after having won just under 37% of the national vote — that’s the lowest total since the 2004 election, when Mutharika narrowly defeated the late Hastings Banda’s uncle, John Tembo, with just 35.9% of the vote.
In the simultaneous parliamentary elections, no party won a majority in the 193-member National Assembly — independent candidates won 52 seats the DPP won 50, the MCP 48, Banda’s PP 26 and the UDF 14. That will require Mutharika to build, or buy, coalitions or alliances.
So where does that leave Malawi? It’s still a country with a nominal GDP per capita of around $350 — that makes it poorer than just about every country in sub-Saharan Africa except Liberia, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Economic growth fell from near double-digit growth to just around 2% GDP in 2012 and just 5% in 2013.
Perhaps the best hope is that Peter Mutharika will govern is a style more reminiscent of his late brother’s first term, which marks the high mark of Malawian governance, than the second.
Though Mutharika earlier this week proclaimed he’s offering Banda an ‘olive branch,’ he nearly threatened in the same breath that Banda shouldn’t ‘let it drop.’ Given the circumstances of how Mutharika and the DPP lost power in 2012, however, there seems little hope that Malawi will avoid a season of score-settling.