Malawi: Campaigning for MultiParty Elections (1993-1994)

Extracted from: "Malawi" IN Compendium of Elections in Southern Africa (2002), edited by Tom Lodge, Denis Kadima and David Pottie, EISA, 129-131.

Immediately after the referendum, the MCP launched an offensive to win the hearts and minds of the people. Haunted by its defeat at the polls, it went on the campaign trail, trying to improve its image and regain legitimacy. Taking advantage of Dr Banda's poor health, his lieutenants did what the President had been loath to do for nearly three decades, recruit new blood and not worry about succession. During the last three months of 1993, the cabinet was reshuffled as many times, with Dr Banda relinquishing his last two key ministerial portfolios, that of agriculture and defence, two of five he had held since the cabinet crisis of October 1964. Secretary-general of the MCP, Gwanda Chakuamba Phiri, consolidated his position and his unchallenged assumption of the leadership of the MCP suggested that he would eventually be at the party's helm. The MCP, seemingly, wanted to go into elections not only as the ruling party, but also to gain credit for reforms being rushed through Parliament.

The MCP's cautious liberalisation meant only that people felt freer to express their grievances against the Banda regime and its baggage of three decades of authoritarian one-party rule and human rights abuses. The party's best hope, therefore, was to continue efforts to divide the opposition, then perhaps to negotiate its way into a post election coalition with Aford or, perhaps, even the UDF. In the run-up to multiparty elections, therefore, Dr Banda and the MCP combined procrastination with an overtly regionalist and tribalist campaign against the opposition, which had strong northern (Aford) and southern (UDF) support but was proven weaker in the Central Region, home of the Chewa people where the MCP still enjoyed majority support. This strategy portrayed the opposition parties as merely representing non-Chewa, such as the Tonga, Tumbuka, Ngoni, Yao, and Sena. The MCP government's general amnesty for exiles was clearly based on the hope that returned exiled politicians would encourage further fragmentation in the opposition.

Despite claims of a common goal and platform during the referendum campaign, both the UDF and Aford treated the exercise as a chance to carve out individual support bases across the country. There was, therefore, always the risk that prevailing signs of disunity in opposition ranks could become concrete divisions. Meanwhile, the opposition also faced a raft of internal problems. The UDF, the wealthiest and best organized party, had become the main target for MCP efforts to win back defectors. Aford, however, remained organizationally weak and politically unfocused. The main danger facing the opposition was that squabbling between the different groups could enable Dr Banda to exploit splits.

In the run-up to the elections, both the UN Joint International Observer Group (JIOG) and the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) reported campaign violence and widespread intimidation, bribery and misuse of official positions. They named the ruling MCP as the main violator, pointing specifically to MCP functionaries (ministers, MPs, and chiefs and village headmen). These functionaries misused their official positions to induce the electorate to participate in pro-MCP activities, sometimes by making use of the intimidatory tactics employed by dancers in the secret Nyau-Nyau initiation ceremonies, and to interfere with the registration process by the confiscation, theft or purchase of voter registration cards.

By the end of April 1994 it became clear that Malawi's first presidential elections under a multiparty system would be a four way contest. The slate of candidates was headed by the incumbent nonagenarian President Kamuzu Banda of the MCP. His first challenger was Bakili Muluzi of the UDF (forming a loose alliance, known as the Common Electoral Group (CEG), with Kanyama Chiume's CSR, Harry Bwanausi's MDU, George Kanyanya's UFMD, and Tim Mangwazu's MNDP, who all withdrew from the race in favour of Muluzi). Chakufwa Chihana of Aford, and Kamlepu Kalua of the MDP were the other two challengers. In contrast, the first multiparty parliamentary elections were contested by eight parties. The ruling MCP and the UDF opted to put up candidates in each of the 177 constituencies: a new delimitation awarded 33 to the sparsely populated Northern Region (1 million), and 68 and 76 each to the more densely populated Central Region (3,7 million) and Southern Region (4,8 million). Besides the 33 constituencies in its northern stronghold, Aford contested an additional 129 seats in the two other regions. The smaller parties put up candidates in some constituencies, varying between 32 for the UFMD and two for the MDU - and there were 13 independent candidates. But clearly, by making more than three quarters of the constituencies three way contests, Aford and the UDF's inability to reach an election agreement risked the possibility of a ruling party victory as a consequence of dividing opposition votes, even if these constituted a majority.

Chihana ignored calls for his party to work with the UDF to topple the Banda regime, because he was convinced that he could win on his own. He argued that Aford was a strong enough party and had a clean image. But he clearly had difficulty in translating this image into popular support and his refusal to work with other parties weakened his challenge; many, even in his own party, saw him as simply manoeuvring for personal power. Aford's northern support base drew on that region's intellectual and dissenting tradition, in contrast to the south's commercial tradition; and Chihana's reluctance to address social and economic issues made it difficult to broaden that base. In contrast, the UDF promised to curtail government expenditure, to increase social spending, and provide free and universal primary education. Neither the UDF nor Aford had any quarrel with the economic liberalization that the MCP regime, pushed by aid donors, had pursued during the previous two years. However, none of these specifics was discussed on the campaign trail, despite labour unrest prompted by price rises and by the threat to jobs as the private and public sectors slimmed. Although populist in tone, the UDF was undoubtedly the party of the disaffected business classes who included medium scale industrialists and merchants, entrepreneurs of all races excluded from the ruling MCP elite.

The bickering between the UDF and Aford offered a welcome respite to the MCP, which was once the sole target of the opposition. Although in its campaign the Banda regime maintained that the peace and stability that it had nurtured in Malawi would be jeopardized by a change in government, the MCP had done little to convince voters that it was not the same party which oversaw three decades of human rights abuses in Malawi. Perhaps the best illustration of how difficult it was for the MCP to repackage itself was the fact that an ailing Dr Banda remained the party's figurehead. At the same time, rallying behind the President fitted in well with the MCP's apparent election strategy of fortifying its proven power base in the Central Region, while the opposition split the vote in the rest of the country. Part of this strategy was to try and ensure that the opposition would self-destruct.

Throughout the election campaign, politicians emphasized the dangers of tribalism, pointing to countries such as Rwanda. The thrust of the opposition's campaign was that it was time for change, that the MCP government had failed to deliver the goods, and that the country needed a new lease of life. But, essentially, the election debate was a tussle between the UDF and the MCP. Human rights were not an issue, perhaps largely because of the prominence they enjoyed in the referendum on multipartyism.

Another potential problem in the run up to elections was the possibility of voter apathy. Malawians, energized by the concrete prospect of voting a dictator out of power in the referendum on multiparty politics, showed less enthusiasm for an apparently unfocused opposition. The MEC even moved the voter registration deadline forward two weeks to 26 March 1994 in order to allow more Malawians the opportunity to participate in the elections. However, registration was disappointing: a rather low figure of some 3,8 million, far short of the 4,7 million who registered for the referendum. This was despite predictions that a flood of voters would register after the minimum voting age was lowered. It was estimated, however, that a respectable 80% of those eligible to vote had indeed registered. The largely illiterate electorate was somehow wary of registering and they were seemingly confused by the proliferation of political parties which had no clear ideological differences.

As the election drew closer, it became clear that only the margin of a UDF victory was in doubt. Aford had failed (because of regional divisions, lack of resources, and an inexperienced leadership) to translate its clean image to popular support in the Southern Region and the Central Region. But the UDF exploited its populous base in the south, where the majority of the nation's people live, to emerge as the dominant political force. The MCP, however, was still a force to contend with, despite its having lost the referendum. It still controlled the bureaucracy and commanded old allies through patronage. In the final analysis, the MCP proved resilient and remained more disciplined than its rivals. On the all party NCC [National Consultative Council], charged with overseeing the transition to democracy, the MCP followed a dual strategy of prevarication on sensitive issues and giving enough rope for opposition parties to hang each other with. The second strategy left the opposition divided over the new constitution, which the NCC was trying to draft and get approved by Parliament before the elections. Finally on 16 May, the day before the polls, the Malawian Parliament met in emergency session to complete the formality of endorsing a new constitution (a provisional document, subject to amendments within the next year). In addition to officially permitting opposition parties, the constitution abolished scores of repressive laws, including those allowing for detention without trial.