Malawi: 1999 Elections (1998-1999)

Extracted from: "Malawi" IN Compendium of Elections in Southern Africa (2002), edited by Tom Lodge, Denis Kadima and David Pottie, EISA, 133-136.

By 1998 Malawi's political scene was already dominated by campaigning for the presidential and parliamentary elections originally scheduled for 25 May 1999. The UDF's [United Democratic Front] party convention, which had to select candidates for the forthcoming poll, was postponed until late 1999. Effectively, therefore, the party leadership authorized President Muluzi to choose parliamentary candidates, rather than leave nominations to party members. While this clearly centralised control of the party in the hands of the president, it also threatened to spark a backlash from party members and voters who feared Muluzi's increasingly autocratic tendencies.

Muluzi was in charge of the UDF campaign and stressed that his government brought democracy to Malawi and introduced free primary education. He had to downplay the problems for which many blamed the UDF, including extremely difficult economic conditions, a drastic 37% devaluation of the kwacha in August 1998, widespread corruption, and deteriorating security. Meanwhile, the fortunes of the two main opposition parties seemed to be in decline in the months preceding the elections. The MCP [Malawi Congress Party] sought to present itself as a new and reformed political party, radically different from the dictatorial clique that ruled the country for three decades. While painting the UDF as corrupt and fiscally irresponsible, thr MCP (which ironically, historically, maintained a state-controlled economy plagued by institutional corruption) campaigned on a platform of free-market economics and fiscal austerity. Indeed, the 1999 elections were crucial for the MCP, as it tried, with some success, to widen its support base beyond its traditional stronghold of central Malawi. In the year before the election it experienced ten defections. At the very least, the MCP had to maintain its 45 seats and remain the largest opposition force if it was to have any hope of regaining power. It was also an important test for the party leadership, especially for the president and secretary general, Gwanda Chakuamba.

The fortunes of Aford declined drastically. Once in coalition with the UDF and boasting six cabinet positions, the party melted into a small and deeply-divided opposition group. The abrasive leadership of Chihana annoyed party members and was a factor in the party's inability to garner support beyond its power base in the Northern Region. Proposed mergers with the MCP angered many Aford members because they could not stomach being allies with the party that had been so oppressive during the Banda era. However, Aford managed to maintain most of its seats and support in the face of the UDF drive which weakened the MCP.

Nevertheless, of the three parties represented in Parliament, Aford appeared to be the most vulnerable. Several of its MPs defected and its support was on the decline. Aford's campaign was disorganised -most candidates were latecomers to the campaign trail and the party failed to rally support. There were complaints that the government forced the closure of mission hospitals and clinics in its Northern Region stronghold. This was an issue that affected voters directly, but it was hardly a strategy for electoral success. The eventual electoral alliance with the MCP, following agreement on a joint presidential candidate (discussed below) was clearly a survival tactic for the party.

Tensions between Malawi's Christian and Muslim communities had also been growing since the election of President Muluzi, a Muslim. Christians, who comprise roughly 75% of the population, were becoming increasingly worried about the penetration of Muslim practices and the "Islamisation" of Malawian culture. The Muluzi administration established diplomatic ties with a number of Islamic countries, but the president repeatedly denied allegations that his government intended to turn Malawi into an Islamic state. Certain Christian groups, however, cited as evidence to the contrary the construction of new mosques across Malawi, the increasing number of students awarded scholarships to study in Islamic countries, and rising aid from Islamic states. Religion and crime thus appeared likely to become additional election issues. After 1995, violent crime escalated alarmingly. Armed robberies, including car-hijackings, were on the increase, aided by the easy availability of arms and ammunition from neighbouring Mozambique.

In preparation for the 1999 elections, the Malawi Constitution tasked the electoral commission with the demarcation of constituencies based on technical criteria, with the aim of ensuring that constituencies contained approximately equal numbers of voters eligible to register. However, the principle of 'equal numbers of voters eligible to register' proved to be difficult to apply. Despite this imbalance, both the absence of a population census since 1987 and complaints from traditional authorities and political leaders opposed to any re-demarcation process which would involve a loss of constituencies for their respective areas made demarcation difficult.

The MEC suggested the creation of 70 additional parliamentary constituencies with the north, centre and south being allocated 11, 17 and 42 constituencies respectively. However, Parliament rejected the proposal claiming that the country could not afford such an enlarged Parliament. In the end, 16 new constituencies were created by subdividing several under-represented constituencies, thereby increasing the number of seats in Parliament from 177 to 193. Eleven of these new constituencies were in the Southern and five in the Central region. The voter registration process also encountered problems such as shortage of materials owing to inaccurate population projections, insufficient training in the handling of film for the voter registration cards and uneven coverage of the registration process ( e.g. with only one week before the last day of registration, it was discovered that 123 centres had not been operational at all).

The polls were eventually set for 15 June 1999. A total of 630 candidates challenged for the 193 seat Parliament. Out of this number, the majority came from the three main parties (MCP, Aford and UDF) though 118 were independent candidates and nearly 100 came from smaller parties.

Five candidates filed nomination forms for the presidential election: Bakili Muluzi (UDF), Gwanda Chakuamba (MCP), a candidate from the Malawi Democratic Party (MDP), Bingu Wa Mutharika (UP) and Bishop Daniel Mkhumbwe (CNU). Bishop Daniel Mkhumbwe was barred from the presidential race on the ground that he had failed to gather the required number of signatures to endorse his candidacy. The commission gave Bishop Mkhumb.we more time to obtain the required number of signatures from supporters in each of Malawi's 26 districts. He was, however, declared to have failed to meet those requirements. The MEC later reversed its decision because the candidate had apparently submitted the signatures to the MEC' s office, but the commission staff failed to deliver the document to the CEO on time.

But the presidential candidate nomination process also sparked additional controversy when the MEC was split along political lines over the issue of the joint candidate for the MCP/ Aford alliance. Chakuamba of the MCP was the presidential candidate for the MCP, with Chakufwa Chihana from Aford as his running mate. However, the chair of the electoral commission, Justice Hanjahanja, declared that he would reject a joint presidential ticket. Four members of the commission, all nominees representing MCP and Aford, rejected this declaration and the MCP/ Aford alliance took the issue to the High Court, which ruled in its favour. Despite the court ruling, further differences within the MEC continued to surface, with one of the commissioners appealing the High Court ruling. With election day fast approaching, and under mounting pressure from opposition parties and civil society organisations, Justice Hanjahanja resigned. He was replaced by Justice Kalaile, less than three weeks before the elections. Kalaile's appointment, while too late in the electoral process to restore complete confidence in the MEC, was seen as a sign of partial credibility , and the MEC withdrew its appeal on the running mate issue. In any event, the presidential candidate nomination process significantly undermined perceptions of the impartiality and effectiveness of the MEC.

In the political campaigns, an important region for all parties was the north, which, while sparsely populated, influences the balance of power. The north is an Aford stronghold and Muluzi' s attempts to campaign in the north were met with violent demonstrations. Three smaller political parties (The Mass Movement for thy Young Generation (MM), the Sapitwa National Democratic Party and the Social Democratic Party) joined the MCP/ Aford alliance.

Muluzi's campaign sought to characterise the MCP as intent on bringing the country back to despotic rule while the opposition countered that the UDF leadership has enriched itself at the expense of the starving and unemployed masses. They also blamed the UDF government for the collapse of the agricultural infrastructure and accused it of corruption, and undemocratic and divisive politics which have furthered the regional polarisation of the country. Both MCP/ Aford and UDF rallies drew large crowds in the Southern and Central Regions.

The 1999 electoral campaign was also marred by many reports of violence and intimidation. In addition to anti-UDF violence in the north, Chakuamba and his supporters were attacked in areas of UDF support. The result was a campaign that reflected more heat than light on the issues.

There were also widespread complaints of media bias on the part of the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC). Less than two weeks before the polling day the MEC issued procedures for media coverage of the 1999 general elections, applying particularly to the MBC. The aim of these procedures was 'to ensure that full, fair and balanced coverage is given, without censorship, in all news and other broadcast output relating to the campaigns of all registered candidates and parties during the period of campaigning'. While these guidelines were welcomed by the interested parties, many argued that they came too late to give all parties and candidates equal opportunity in the then forthcoming elections.

While most observers acknowledged that the general conduct of the elections on voting day was relatively smooth, the counting process was particularly slow. President Muluzi was re-elected with 2 442 685 votes against Chakuamba's 2 106 790 votes (see 1999 Presidential election results). The majority of Muluzi' s support came from the populous Southern Region (77.33% ) while the Northern (88%) and Central (54%) voters supported Chakuamba. However, there were ongoing electoral disputes against the electoral results with Chakuamba claiming the elections were rigged and Muluzi had failed to win the required majority of results. However, Muluzi was nevertheless sworn in as president on 21 June 1999.

In the parliamentary election the MCP/Aford alliance won 95 seats in Parliament while the UDF won 93 seats and four seats went to independent candidates (see 1999 National Assembly election results). Aford was strongest in the north, winning 28 seats while MCP took four and UDF one. In the Central Region, MCP dominated with 54 seats. The UDF received 16 and Aford and an independent received one candidate each. UDF won 76 seats in the south, while the MCP won eight and three independents.

The UDF improved on its 1994 performance in the Central and Southern Region, winning an additional four seats, and an additional three seats respectively. MCP support improved in both the Central and Southern Regions were it won an additional three seats in each. Mord' s support remains confined almost entirely to the north. Thus, the regional pattern of political support demonstrated in the presidential election was retained in the parliamentary poll. The notable presence of four independent MPs is undermined by the fact that all four are former UDF members who failed to win primary elections as UDF candidates.