On Tuesday, May 21, 2019, the people of Malawi will head to the polls for the sixth time since the country adopted multi-party democracy, 25 years ago. The election, with an estimated voter population of 6.8 million, will see Malawians either retain or elect a new president, members of the National Assembly, and local government councilors. As with every national election globally, observers - especially those from other countries and international organizations - will be more interested in who becomes the president.
This year’s presidential election pitches incumbent President, Peter Mutharika, who is attempting to secure a second term, against his own vice president, Saulos Klaus Chilima and Lazarus Chakwera, a former head of Malawi’s Assemblies of God Church.
While many international observers may be surprised to find that a president is being challenged by his own subordinate due to disagreement on many issues, to the extent of challenging him in a national election, to Malawians, this is very common.
Malawi’s first ever multi-party elections held in 1994, saw the United Democratic Front’s (UDF) Bakili Muluzi beat his former boss and incumbent president, Hastings Kamuzu Banda of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP). Banda, until losing the 1994 election had been Malawi’s only president in a dictatorial regime, since it became independent in 1964.
In 1992, Muluzi left Banda’s ruling MCP to join other groups to advocate for the legalization of multi-party politics, and an end to Banda’s dictatorship. Amidst widespread domestic protests and pressure from the international community, Banda succumbed to these pressures, leading to the lift of ban on the formation of political parties in 1993. A year later, Malawi held its first multi-party elections.
As the 1995 Democratic Constitution of Malawi provides for a two consecutive 5-year term, Muluzi was eligible to contest in the 1999 elections, in which he won. He beat his rival, Gwanda Chakuamba, after garnering 52.4% of the votes. In the 2004 elections, Muluzi’s handpicked successor, Bingu wa Mutharika, also won, extending the UDF’s stay in power.
However, this stay was short-lived. After falling out with his predecessor, Muluzi - who remained as the chairman of UDF - Mutharika left the ruling party to form the Democratic People’s Party (DPP) in 2005, despite becoming Malawi’s president on the ticket of UDF.
This saw a large defection of legislators joining Mutharika’s DPP from the ruling UDF and MCP (who had the most seats in the National Assembly), leading to an unprecedented development - the DPP became the ruling party while the UDF went into opposition, without entering into an election.
With the newly formed DPP now controlling government affairs, President Mutharika faced stiff opposition from his Vice-President, Cassim Chilumpha, who was still a member of UDF. In February 2006, President Mutharika’s attempt to sack his vice-president was blocked by the High Court on constitutional grounds. This kept Chilumpha in his position until the 2009 presidential election.
In the run-up to the 2009 presidential election, Mutharika nominated Joyce Banda as his running mate. He was able to secure his grip in power after he won a second term, and the DPP also securing majority seats in the National Assembly. In 2010, Bingu wa Mutharika began grooming his brother, Peter Mutharika, to succeed him in the 2014 elections.
This saw the sudden sidelining of Banda and after internal disagreements over the President’s actions, Banda was expelled from the DPP in December 2010. This led her to form a new party, People’s Party (PP) in 2011, while still the country’s vice-president.
Already sacked from the ruling party as their vice-president, Banda, like her predecessor, Chilumpha, was able to survive Mutharika’s attempt to sack her as vice-president of the country, as this was also blocked by the High Court. In a September 2011 cabinet reshuffle, Banda was not given any official role and her former duties were assigned to the president’s wife, Callista. However, she still remained as the legal vice-president as mandated by the Constitution.
In April 2012, President Mutharika’s sudden death in office led to Vice-President Banda assuming his position, making her the first female and 4th President of Malawi. Mutharika’s death, which was publicly announced two days later, led to what political commentators describe as a “constitutional crisis” in Malawi.
During the two days before the public announcement, the DPP-led cabinet, attempted to deny Vice-President Banda from assuming the position of the president, since she formed her own party after being sacked from the ruling party.
This attempt was against Malawi’s 1995 Democratic Constitution, which provides that, the Vice-President occupies the position when it becomes vacant. Some of the country’s influential personalities, including former president, Bakili Muluzi, called for constitutional order to prevail.
In the 2014 presidential elections, Peter Mutharika, brother of the late president, contested on the ticket of DPP, winning, by beating incumbent President Joyce Banda, to become president.
Mutharika had Saulos Klaus Chilima as his running-mate and similar to previous governments, Chilima also had disagreements with his boss. In July 2018, Chilima left the ruling party to launch his movement, United Transformation Movement (UTM), with the view of forming his political party for this year’s elections. He cited corruption and nepotism as reasons for his departure. In December 2018, Chilima was elected as the presidential candidate of UTM.
As political parties wrap up their campaigns by Sunday, May 19, 2019, this lays the platform for Malawian voters to decide on their next leader on Tuesday. And when the winner of the poll is declared and inaugurated later this month, observers would be very keen to see if the cycle of the vice-president challenging the president’s authority, thereby undermining the government, would continue in the next administration.
Cornelius Mensah-Onumah is a freelance researcher based in Ghana, who holds an MSc in Defense and International Politics and a BA in History and Geography.