Malawi: May 1994 Elections: A Watershed (1994-1998)

Extracted from: "Malawi" IN Compendium of Elections in Southern Africa (2002), edited by Tom Lodge, Denis Kadima and David Pottie, EISA, 131-133.

The UDF [United Democratic Front] won both the presidential and parliamentary elections on 17 May 1994. But the results revealed the inherent tribal/ethnic and regional tendencies underlying Malawian politics. In nearly all constituencies the trend was that in a region where a presidential candidate had secured a majority vote that party's parliamentary candidates also won. The Commonwealth Election Monitoring Group declared the polls "free and fair", but Malawi had split along potentially dangerous regional lines.

Bakili Muluzi drew 1 404 754 votes (47.16%); Dr Kamuzu Banda came second with 996 363 votes (33.45%); while Chakufwa Chihana finished a distant third with 552 862 votes, and Kamlepu Kalua mustered a paltry 15 624 votes (see 1994 Presidential election results). The UDF won the populous Southern Region, with support from Lilongwe in the centre; Aford [Alliance For Democracy] swept the Northern Region and made some inroads in the northern parts of the Central Region; and the MCP [Malawi Congress Party] support held up in the rural Central Region of Malawi (see 1994 National Assembly election results). However, with 84 seats out of a total of 177, the UDF finished five seats short of an overall majority; the MCP got 55 seats and Aford secured 36, while two constituencies (Nsanje North and Nsanje Southwest) had to face election re-runs because of voting irregularities.

Predictably none of the parties secured an outright victory. Muluzi indicated that he would prefer coalition to minority government and he ruled out co-operation with the MCP. But inflexibility on both sides effectively scuppered UDF-Aford talks on coalition. The essentially regionally based voting pattern and the UDF's lack of an outright majority (although being the largest party in Parliament) raised the spectre of a new political instability.

Then, in an improbable union that shocked most Aford supporters, Chihana joined forces with the MCP (often described by him as that "party of death and darkness"). He alleged that the UDF government did not appreciate the regional trends as manifested in the voting patterns of the general election. This was a coded complaint about Muluzi's refusal to agree to a government of national unity, comprising all parties. Chihana promised opposition unity in the interest of national security. The pact was a bitter pill to swallow for many Aford members and a slow process of defection to the UDF commenced. However, the MCP was buoyant because the pact proved to be an escape route from political marginalization. Having failed to secure a coalition government, Muluzi pressed ahead with a minority government in spite of the prospect of facing formidable resistance from a unified opposition front in Parliament. Indeed, the MCP-Aford alliance quickly capitalized on their new found strength by electing an Aford member as Speaker of Parliament, while sharing the spoils for the two deputy speakers. They also voted themselves into control of some key parliamentary committees, including one which was to draft standing orders on parliamentary procedures.

But, clearly, Muluzi had to continue trying to bring Aford into the new government for two reasons. First, the UDF's minority position in Parliament could damage its legislative programme and second, failure to make Aford part of government could further alienate northern sentiment. In an attempt to win goodwill in Aford held constituencies, Muluzi toured the Northern Region and promised more resources to improve educational, health care and communications infrastructure in this generally underdeveloped area. Throughout the country, he promised that the new government will provide housing and pay monthly allowances to chiefs and village headmen - a move particularly aimed at penetrating the traditional authorities previously loyal to the MCP.

Eventually, in September 1994 Aford joined the ruling UDF in government. The coalition now had 121 seats in Parliament, leaving the MCP as the only effective opposition with 56 seats. This uneasy alliance lasted for less than two years, as the unpredictable Chihana pulled Aford out of government in June 1996 and promptly started to make new overtures to the MCP. However, several Aford members refused to follow, choosing instead to remain in cabinet and Parliament. In 1997, Aford was on the brink of merging with the MCP, which would have given the combined party a parliamentary majority. This would have made it possible for the merged party to challenge the government. But, Dr Banda and John Tembo opposed the merger and the bid was rejected. After Dr Banda's death on 27 November 1997 the MCP suffered a serious reversal of fortunes with the loss of ten parliamentary seats, as members renounced the party and became independents. Also, with the nationalization of Press Trust Corporation, the party lost a significant funding source.

Although the UDF held the presidency and largest number of seats in Parliament, the party lacked an absolute majority. Its consequent struggle to maintain control has dominated Malawian politics in the post-Banda period. After winning three by-elections in May 1998, the ruling party briefly secured 89 of the 177 seats (50,3%) in Parliament, but then it lost two seats owing to the unexpected death of incumbents. This again cost the UDF its majority.

Nevertheless, the ruling party effectively changed the tenor of the government and opened up political debate in the country. It successfully liberalized agricultural policies to the benefit of small-scale farmers.