Malawi: Pressures for a MultiParty System (1992)

Extracted from: "Malawi" IN Compendium of Elections in Southern Africa (2002), edited by Tom Lodge, Denis Kadima and David Pottie, EISA, 124-126.

From the beginning of 1992 Malawi began to show all the usual symptoms of a country approaching the end of a long standing autocratic regime. In March the government was exposed to unprecedented criticism from the influential Roman Catholic Church with the publication by its bishops of an open letter criticizing human rights abuses. Pressure on the government intensified when about 80 Malawian political exiles gathered in Lusaka, Zambia to devise a strategy to precipitate political reforms. The Banda regime was seriously threatened from within the country in May, when unrest in Blantyre and Lilongwe escalated into violent anti-government riots. These protests marked a rite of passage for Malawi and, arguably, became the country's first overt act of disenchantment with the Banda regime for nearly three decades. A major psychological barrier had been swept away - and the process of change now seemed irreversible. International donors also suspended all non humanitarian aid to Malawi, pending an improvement in the government's observance of human rights.

With Dr Banda becoming increasingly isolated from day to day state affairs, and access to him effectively blocked by John Tembo and Cecilia Kadzamira, it was not surprising that the president remained unaware of the magnitude and significance of the mounting pressure for democratic change. In fact, he was unlikely to make any significant move as his leadership faltered. At the same time, an internal opposition to the government was beginning, slowly and carefully and at extreme risk to take root, preparing itself for inevitable change. The government was unable to suppress criticism totally, as it had been able to do in the past, or to ward off international pressure. Its security forces were, for once, powerless to prevent public manifestations of anti-government feeling. The traditional rivalry between the army and police was becoming a major factor in the political equation, with the previously aloof army showing signs of being ready to prevent the police from launching a full scale crackdown on opponents of the regime.

In reaction to the May 1992 disturbances, Dr Banda's only policy response was to dissolve Parliament and hold a new one party poll in June 1992. The elections were for 91 of the 141 seats in the rubber stamp parliament. Forty-five candidates were returned unopposed, five seats remained vacant owing to the disqualification of some candidates, and 62 former members of the National Assembly lost their seats.

Opposition groups challenged the government's claim of a turnout of around 80% of the electorate. In fact, behind-the-scenes manipulation of candidacies contributed to the lowest turnout in Malawian electoral history: around 40% nationally, in the commercial centre of Blantyre a mere 20%, and only 10% in some other areas.

The Livingstonia Synod of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP) decided in August 1992 to set up a committee to campaign for a national referendum on multi party politics. This initiative was intended to give new impetus to the opposition. Opposition leaders were concerned that the MCP would be able to claim that an organized opposition did not exist. Subsequently, the Christian Council of Malawi (CCM), representing seventeen Protestant churches, called in an open letter on the government to hold a referendum on a multi party political system. In addition, several pro democracy committees had been formed in all three regions. With the announcement in September of the formation of the Alliance for Democracy (Aford), headed by Chakufwa Chihana, the myth propagated by the MCP that no internal opposition existed, was finally removed. In response, Dr Banda reluctantly appointed a so-called Presidential Committee on Dialogue (PCD) to discuss "issues of national concern" with all church leaders and other interested groups. Then, in a sudden change of course, he called a national referendum on the question of whether people wanted to continue with the one party system or preferred to introduce a multi party system of government. This was a major concession to his opponents at home and to Western donor nations. For the first time, after nearly 30 years of one party elections, Malawians now had the prospect of a genuine choice.

In the wake of these developments, a group of former politicians and civil servants of the Malawian government formed another pressure group, the United Democratic Front (UDF). Headed by Bakili Muluzi, a former secretary-general of the MCP, the UDF was to openly mobilize support for a multiparty system of government. Both Aford and the UDF seemed to have similar agendas, although the UDF made it plain that it wanted nothing to do with the large and politically divided exiled community. Aford's position, on the other hand, was that exiles should be allowed to return and participate in the unfolding political process in Malawi. Despite these differences, however, it was unlikely, for practical reasons, that there would be any hostile competition between the two groups before the referendum.

Opposition pressure groups such as Aford, the UDF, Lesoma, and the UFMD listed a number of demands in order to level the playing field in the run up to the referendum. The PCD met with the Public Affairs Committee (PAC), comprising representatives from Aford, the UDF, church officials from various denominations (the Roman Catholic Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Anglican Church, the Christian Council, and the Ecumenical Council of Malawi), a delegation from the Malawi Law Society, the Muslim community, and representatives from the Malawi Chamber of Commerce and Industry. This was a significant development in that it was the first time the Malawian government met its opponents in a face to face encounter to discuss political differences.