Malawi: Pre-independence election of 1961

Extracted from: "Malawi" IN Compendium of Elections in Southern Africa (2002), edited by Tom Lodge, Denis Kadima and David Pottie, EISA, 121-122.

The 1960 Constitution provided for a Legislative Council of 28 members and five officials elected on the basis of a qualified franchise. There were two voters' rolls: voters on the higher roll elected eight members, and those on the lower roll voted for 20 representatives. All voters had to be 21 years of age. In August 1961, the first election was held under this constitution. There was a total of 110 432 registered voters out of a total population of some 2.8 million - 106 095 on the lower voters' roll and 4 337 on the higher voters' roll.

In the period preceding the election smaller parties such as the Christian Democratic Party (CDP) of Chester Katsonga and the Christian Liberation Party (CLP) of TDT Banda, which was the rump of the old Nyasaland African Congress (NAC), were fiercely criticized by the MCP and even subjected to violent intimidation. The antipathy directed towards non-MCP supporters was, however, not aimed at the other communities. Europeans and Asians in the United Federal Party (UFP) could go about their political business unhindered.

The poll of 1961, the first and only multiparty election to be held in Malawi until 1994, contested by candidates from the MCP, the CLP (which had amalgamated with the CDP), the UFP (which had a sprinkling of African support), and two independents. The election itself was, in fact, a referendum on federation. It provided, not an opportunity to test the support for alternative views, but an occasion for the demonstration of solidarity by all Africans - ultimately, a ritual demonstration of faith and confidence in Dr Kamuzu Banda. As the results came in, it became apparent that the MCP had done better than even its most optimistic supporters had forecast. What was surprising was the exceptionally high poll of 95,1% on the lower voters' roll. Of these votes, more than 99% were cast for the MCP. On the higher voters' roll, where the poll was 85%, 43% of the votes cast were against the UFP.

The overwhelming African support for the MCP was demonstrated when the party won all 20 seats on the lower voters' roll, five of them unopposed, and the only two it contested on the higher voters' roll (for detail see 1961 Legislative Council election results). The UFP, with mostly European support, won five seats on the higher roll, while the remaining seat went to an independent candidate. The CLP was pulverized and its demise marked the end of organized African opposition to the MCP. In future it was to be this party alone which would decide the destiny of Malawi. The election allowed the MCP (and its NAC predecessor) to substantiate constitutionally the claim it had made in rebellion: that is, that it represented the majority of the African population in the territory. But to understand how the party managed to rally such massive support, one must examine the crusade like nature of its appeal. The MCP was not so much a political party as a mass movement, dedicated to a single objective and mobilized behind a charismatic leader. It did not seek to operate within the limits of the existing political system, but it actively sought to redefine that system. Support for the party was, therefore, a moral norm, not just a matter of opinion.

The new Legislative Council was made up of 22 MCP members, five officials, five UFP representatives, and one independent who had MCP support. Dr Banda became leader of the MCP in the Legislative Council, and sat on the Executive Council as the Minister of Natural Resources and Local Government; and three other senior MCP members held ministerial portfolios. After the MCP had been in power for only three months, the governor of Nyasaland exercised his discretionary powers to replace the two nominated officials on the Executive Council with elected members, thus giving the MCP an absolute majority. With the introduction of representative government, official control over the legislature had come to an end; now the stage had been reached where the legislature took control of the executive. Moreover, the transitional period was made smoother by the presence of a progressive colonial authority, amenable to radical political change. Within a year, Dr Banda solidified his position as de facto prime minister; and the experiment to entrust Africans with control over their own affairs engendered enough confidence to take the next step to responsible self government.