Malawi: Run Up to the Referendum (1992-1993)

Extracted from: "Malawi" IN Compendium of Elections in Southern Africa (2002), edited by Tom Lodge, Denis Kadima and David Pottie, EISA, 126-127.

A team of United Nations experts advised the government on the modalities and logistics of conducting a referendum on multi party democracy along internationally acceptable lines. It recommended that the Malawi government release all political prisoners and declare a general amnesty for exiles; draw up a new voters' register to allow political exiles to participate in the poll; provide free access to information; and allow freedom of the press for all participating groups. Aford and the UDF agreed to work together for the referendum, and campaigned jointly. However, Aford expressed fears that the referendum would not be free or fair, because of the MCP government's unwillingness to respond to calls for it to restore all civil liberties and rights. Aford also feared the government would use its extensive security apparatus to prevent its opponents from campaigning, especially in the rural areas where the MCP controlled most aspects of daily life, including food distribution. Neither the UDF nor Aford were allowed to hold rallies to encourage people to vote in favour of a multiparty system. Although both Aford and the UDF had by then registered as associations (or "pressure groups"), neither of their applications had been approved and members were arrested across the country for possessing or selling membership cards. The opposition newspapers The Malawi Democrat (Aford) and The UDF News were also banned. Similarly, a ban on radio advertising hit the multiparty groups hard, because in a country where only 41,7% of the population is literate, the radio was the only medium by which they could effectively communicate with the general population and present their case.

Subsequently, a 12 member referendum commission was appointed to oversee the poll and to take overall charge of the administrative procedures for the referendum. Although such a commission was one of the major opposition demands, there was disappointment with its composition, as it was clearly not "neutral" and independent - indeed, stacked with MCP and government supporters. A UN report recommended that voting be conducted using a single ballot box on polling day, to improve the secrecy of the vote. The report further dwelt on technicalities related to the need for a rigorous voter registration campaign, the need to lower the voting age from 21 to 18 years, for properly designed ballot boxes, for adequate protection against double voting, for polling to be undertaken on one day only, for the presence of independent observers and referendum agents from all sides, and the need for ample lead time to the referendum. But in response, Dr Banda rejected the lowering of the age limit and the use of a single ballot box, in preference for the use of two, separate ballot boxes. In a country with a record of extensive harassment of MCP government opponents, the lack of secrecy in voting procedures was prone to cause alarm among multiparty supporters.

Dr Banda was attempting to legitimize the one party state under the MCP by holding a snap referendum using the one-party electoral register. He had already suffered a moral and political defeat with his campaign rallies drawing fewer than 1 000 people (and very seldom up to 5 000), as compared to those of the opposition which regularly attracted between 20 000 and 30 000 people. Finally, he determined the referendum for 14 June 1993. The opposition expressed concern about a number of matters which could make the referendum less than free and fair, and then stated their bottom line for participation: the use of a single ballot box, instead of separate boxes for "yes" (one party) and "no" (multiparty) votes. Clearly, this was a voting procedure that was prone to irregularities and intimidation. The issue of the "two ballot boxes" came to a head in May (less than one month before the referendum) when agreement was reached between the Malawian government and the opposition on new proposals involving a system of two ballot papers used successfully in the Eritrean elections. One of two ballot papers (one representing the hurricane lamp of the Aford/UDF opposition "pressure groups", and the other the black cockerel of the ruling MCP) would be selected by voters behind a screen and placed in an envelope, which would then be dropped into a single ballot box in public view.

Prior to the referendum, observers agreed that support for the ruling MCP was dwindling in the urban areas. Naturally, the more sophisticated and literate sections of the Malawian electorate, able to draw information from a flowering of small independent newspapers, were to be found there. However, the airwaves of the MBC (the main source of information in the rural areas, where literacy levels are much lower) remained closed to the multiparty supporters. And in the rural areas other than in the north, conservatism, lack of information (and, alleged the opposition, the fact that drought relief was being distributed as gifts from the ruling party) had helped to maintain support for the one-party system. While the urban and semi-urban areas appeared overwhelmingly in favour of multiparty democracy, it was a demographic fact that more than four out of five Malawians lived in the rural areas. It was there that the referendum was to be decided. But even there, indications were that the MCP had, functionally, almost evaporated and the network of party channels had, for all intents and purposes, collapsed.