How does change happen? Lessons from Malawi

July 1, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

Nic Cheeseman and Golden Matonga explore the factors behind a remarkable political breakthrough in Malawi

In June 2019, Malawi’s democracy appeared to be in decline. President Peter Mutharika had just been declared the official winner of controversial presidential polls that were denounced by opposition parties and civil society groups. Mass protests regularly brought urban areas to a standstill but failed to move the government, raising fears that prolonged political deadlock might lead to more serious unrest.

Just over a year later, Malawi is celebrating a remarkable series of democratic achievements that culminated in the nullification of the 2019 poll, a “fresh election”, and a peaceful transfer of power via the ballot box. So what made change possible?

Perhaps, the most important two lessons to take away from Malawi are that change never has just one cause or driver, and that people power is critical to strengthening the independence and effectiveness of democratic institutions.

A quick review of the steps that the country took between 2019 and 2020 reveals the different ingredients that came together to make change happen.

Let us start with the election result itself.

In 2019, despite opinion polls suggesting they would lose if they ran separately, calls for unity between the two main opposition parties – Lazarus Chakwera’s Malawi Congress Party and Saulos Chilima’s United Transformation Movement – fell on deaf ears and they consequently divided the vote.

Together they would have taken 55% of the poll and with it, victory—even going by the discredited official results. Divided, they made it easier for Mutharika and his Democratic Progressive Party to hold on to power.

Chakwera and Chilima quickly learned the value of unity – forged during their common struggle against the 2019 election outcome – and came together to form the Tonse Alliance with Chakwera as presidential candidate and Chilima as running mate.

This was not easy – senior figures within MCP had to step aside to make room for Chilima and his allies – but it allowed them to secure a winning margin so large (58% – 41% = 17%) that it was all but impossible for the ruling party to rig the outcome.

But this is only part of the story. The election might have never taken place had the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) not got a new Chair, Chifundo Kachale, who replaced the controversial Jane Ansah. Kachale brilliantly navigated a combination of political and logistical obstacles, despite only taking over two weeks before the election.

In particular, Kachale had to persuade the government to actually release the money to allow the election to go ahead and make sure that there was no more questions about “tippex” in the tallying process.

That he did such a good job – largely in the absence of donor funding or international assistance – was partly due to his dedication, intelligence and creativity. But it was also underpinned by the fact that under Malawian law, the president could not select just anyone to replace Ansah – the Chair of the MEC has to be a high court judge. This prevented Mutharika from simply appointing a “yes man” willing to do his bidding.

Kachale’s political independence was critical to the elections being credible, yet this too is only part of the story. Malawi only held a “fresh” election in 2020 because first the Constitutional Court and later the Supreme Court ruled that the 2019 polls had been flawed. Indeed, the Courts went well beyond simply striking down Mutharika’s victory, stipulating that victors in presidential elections must win 50%+1 of the vote, and setting out a timeframe for the fresh elections.

In turn, this decision did not come out of a vacuum, but was itself the product of a long history of institutional evolution in which judges who had previously acted to defend democracy and recent reforms had boosted their agency and confidence. The judges of the Constitutional Court even refused a large bribe from the ruling party .

Even this, however, might have mattered little if the ruling party had been able to use the security forces to simply override the courts and the popular will.  It was therefore critical that the Malawian armed forces do not simply respond to the whim of the president. During the 2019 post-election protests, the military was widely seen to be sympathetic to the protestors, and in some cases even took steps to protect them from the police. Again, this political independence did not emerge in a vacuum.

President Mutharika actually sought to bring the armed forces onside by firing the head of the military General Vincent Nundwe and his deputy in March and replacing them with figures more to his liking. But the military has a track record of acting to defend the rule of law during political transitions. Even under new leadership, Mutharika knew that it was likely that the armed forces would refuse to intervene to undermine democracy.

When all these points are considered together, it becomes clear that far-reaching political change required both good leadership – of the opposition, military, judiciary, and electoral commission – and the incremental strengthening of key democratic institutions over many years. Without any one of these processes, the 2020 election might have turned out very differently – or even not have been held at all. Malawi’s democratic breakthrough might have the appearance of a sudden rupture, but it was made possible by a long-term process of incremental change.

This raises the question of why this institutional change has occurred and why so many institutions came together to defend democracy in 2020. There are a number of possible answers to this question and more research is needed when the dust has settled. One of the most likely explanations, however, is that people power encouraged institutions to check the abuse of power. As both Kim Yi Dionne and Peter vonDoepp have argued, judicial independence is related to popular support for democratic norms and for the sitting president. Given this, the “year of protests” organized by the Human Rights Defenders Coalition, an influential civil society consortium that bravely brought thousands of people to the streets on a regular basis to campaign against the 2019 election, was particularly important because it significantly increased the pressure on key democratic institutions and those working within them.

Along with a growing sense that the popular will had turned against Mutharika and the DPP – something confirmed by pre-election surveys – this emboldened judges, electoral officials and others to stand up and be counted. In this way, the impressive performance of political institutions, and the country’s democratic progress itself, is rooted in the hard work of civil society groups and the efforts and aspirations of hundreds of thousands of Malawian citizens.

Events in Malawi have rightly inspired pro-democracy activists across Africa, but they will be hard to replicate. Gradual institutional strengthening takes time, and mobilising large numbers of people requires a combination of effective civil society organisations and mass popular engagement.

Many countries in the region are starting from a less promising position. In nearby Zambia, the courts are under the thumb of President Lungu. In Zimbabwe, the military is deeply entwined with the ruling party. In Tanzania, civil society groups and the media have to operate under tighter restrictions. For these countries, Malawi will be a valuable role model, but a key lesson is that change will not be quick or easy. 

July 1, 2020
Duncan Green