Malawi holds regular elections and has undergone multiple transfers of power between political parties, though the changes were largely a result of rifts among ruling elites rather than competition between distinct groups. Political rights and civil liberties are for the most part respected by the state. However, corruption is endemic, police brutality and arbitrary arrests are common, and discrimination and violence toward women, minority groups, and people with albinism remain problems.
- In the May general elections, incumbent Peter Mutharika of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was declared the winner of the presidential race with 38.57 percent of votes cast, edging out two major challengers.
- Evidence of possible fraud emerged following the elections, with photos showing tabulation sheets that were edited using a correction fluid known as Tipp-Ex. The Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) stated that the fluid was used simply to correct basic errors, but opposition parties took the matter to the Constitutional Court, which had yet to rule at the end of 2019.
- Amid the Tipp-Ex scandal, the Malawi Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) organized regular mass demonstrations in all major cities, calling for MEC chair Jane Ansah to step down. Organizers of and participants in the demonstrations faced harassment, threats, and violence at the hands of police, other authorities, and supporters of the ruling party.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||3.003 4.004|
The president is directly elected for five-year terms and exercises considerable executive authority. The May 2019 election featured logistical challenges and allegations of fraud, but it was generally regarded as credible by local and international observers. A week after the balloting, the MEC declared incumbent Peter Mutharika of the DPP the winner of the presidential contest, with 38.57 percent of the vote, followed by opposition leader Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) with 35.41 percent and incumbent vice president Saulos Chilima of the United Transformation Movement (UTM) with 20.24 percent. Mutharika was inaugurated at the end of the month and began his second term despite ongoing controversy that was stoked by photographs showing the use of Tipp-Ex correction fluid to alter vote tabulation sheets. While the MEC said the changes were legitimate corrections of basic errors, opposition parties challenged the validity of the official results, and a ruling by the Constitutional Court was pending at year’s end.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||3.003 4.004|
The unicameral National Assembly is composed of 193 members elected by popular vote to serve serve five-year terms. Legislative elections were held concurrently with the presidential election in May 2019 and suffered from some irregularities and logistical problems, though the results were not challenged to the same extent as the presidential result. The ruling DPP captured 62 seats, followed by the MCP with 55, the United Democratic Front (UDF) with 10, the People’s Party (PP) with 5, the UTM with 4, and the Alliance for Democracy with 1. Independent candidates won 55 seats, and balloting in the remaining constituency was postponed until early 2020 due to the death of a candidate.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||2.002 4.004|
The MEC lacks resources and is often unprepared to carry out elections. Though viewed in previous elections are largely impartial, the MEC was the object of sharp criticism in 2019. Opposition parties and civil society activists called for MEC chair Jane Ansah’s resignation, accusing the commission of mismanagement of the electoral process. A series of anti-Ansah demonstrations continued through the end of the year, and the MEC postponed by-elections in Lilongwe that were scheduled for early November due to concerns about the safety of election staff.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||3.003 4.004|
There are few significant obstacles to the formation of political parties, though the government has at times held up the registration of new groups. While several parties compete in practice, they are loosely organized, with politicians frequently moving between parties or breaking away to form their own groups. Many candidates choose to run as independents. In 2018, Vice President Chilima formed the UTM in order to launch his presidential campaign against Mutharika. The party itself performed poorly in the 2019 general elections, but Chilima played an important role in the presidential contest and remained politically influential.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||3.003 4.004|
Malawi has experienced peaceful transfers of power between rival groups. Opposition parties hold seats in the parliament and are generally able to campaign freely throughout the country. However, an opposition party has never defeated an incumbent party that was elected in its own right since the transition to democracy in 1994.
The playing field during election campaigns is often skewed toward the governing party. Opposition parties have sometimes faced violence and intimidation, and in 2019 they accused the state-owned broadcaster, the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), of favoring the DPP in its coverage. The opposition relied on private media to convey its message to the public.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||3.003 4.004|
Traditional chiefs, who wield some authority and receive public funds, are supposed to be nonpartisan figures under the law, but they influence voters in practice. Some chiefs publicly endorsed the incumbent president ahead of the 2019 elections.
The Political Parties Act, which came into force in 2018, bans politicians from using cash handouts and other incentives to garner votes. Despite this, a November 2019 report from the Westminster Foundation for Democracy found that over 96 percent of candidates alleged the use of handouts to chiefs and voters in their constituencies.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||3.003 4.004|
All ethnic, religious, and gender groups have full political rights under the law. However, women remain underrepresented in politics despite gradual gains, and according to Afrobarometer, they are less likely than men to become politically involved. The 2019 elections featured increased participation by women, with 44 winning seats in the National Assembly. In June, Catherine Gotani Hara became the body’s first woman speaker.
Some other segments of the population are politically marginalized. Political parties generally do not advocate for the rights of LGBT+ people, who are subject to legal and societal discrimination.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||3.003 4.004|
Executive and legislative representatives are typically able to determine the policies of government unhindered. However, patronage and clientelism are common, and wealthy business leaders often have influence over policymaking.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||1.001 4.004|
Corruption is endemic in Malawi. Civil society leaders have accused the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB), which is responsible for investigating corruption, of being ineffective and politically compromised. Several major corruption scandals have shaken the country in recent years, and high-level officials have generally acted with impunity.
In October 2019, the ACB charged former presidential adviser Uladi Mussa with abuse of office. The US government in July had barred Mussa’s entry to the United States based on evidence that he had “been involved in significant corruption.” His case was pending before the High Court in Malawi at year’s end.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||2.002 4.004|
Malawi lacks budgetary transparency; the government does not make year-end budget audit reports public. As of 2019, the government had yet to take the steps necessary for the 2017 Access to Information Act to come into force.
High-level officials are legally required to declare their assets and other financial interests while in public service. Mutharika and Vice President Everton Chimulirenji—who replaced Chilima after the May election—declared their assets in 2019, but few others followed suit.
|Are there free and independent media?||2.002 4.004|
Freedom of the press is legally guaranteed and traditionally respected in practice. However, news outlets have experienced intimidation and undue regulatory interference in recent years. In June 2019, the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority imposed an indefinite suspension on call-in radio programs, citing concerns that they would instigate violence in the context of postelection protests. The High Court lifted the ban in September after the Malawi chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa—in collaboration with local broadcasters—argued that it violated freedom of expression.
Journalists sometimes face physical violence while reporting on demonstrations or police activity. In September 2019, two journalists were attacked by demonstrators during antigovernment protests in Lilongwe.
A vaguely worded 2016 cybersecurity law criminalizes the posting of “offensive” content online, which could place journalists at risk of prosecution.
Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 due to greater government pressure on independent media in recent years, including a nearly four-month ban on radio call-in shows in 2019.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||4.004 4.004|
The constitution upholds freedom of religion, and this right is generally respected in practice. However, some government-run schools reportedly require Muslim girls to remove their headscarves. In November 2019, an incident in which Christian men allegedly prevented two Muslim girls in headscarves from attending an Anglican-affiliated public school prompted an outbreak of communal violence in which at least two people were injured.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||4.004 4.004|
Malawi’s education system is largely free from political indoctrination. University students and professors have been able to engage in research and political activities without interference in recent years.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||3.003 4.004|
Citizens are typically free to express their personal views without fear of surveillance or retribution. However, many Malawians do not feel comfortable criticizing the government and engage in self-censorship. In addition to the 2016 cybercrime law’s ban on posting “offensive” content, a law against insulting the leader of Malawi remains on the books, though it is rarely enforced. Civil society leaders have expressed suspicions that the government monitors their electronic communications using new technology that was introduced in 2017.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||2.002 4.004|
Freedom of assembly is guaranteed in the constitution, but the government has sometimes limited this right. The HRDC organized regular protests following what it deemed mismanagement of the May 2019 elections. Organizers and participants faced harassment, threats, and violence at the hands of police, other authorities, and supporters of the ruling party.
In August, the home of HRDC chair Timothy Mtambo was attacked with gasoline bombs. In September, ruling party youth cadres reportedly hacked HRDC leader Billy Mayaya and four others with machetes, leaving them with serious injuries. In October, Mtambo was shot at multiple times in Lilongwe.
Also in October, a police officer was stoned to death during demonstrations in Msundwe after police used tear gas on protesters. Four protesters were charged in the officer’s death. Demonstrations continued through the end of the year.
Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 because postelection demonstrations were met with repressive and retaliatory violence by police and ruling party supporters.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||2.002 4.004|
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are active in Malawi, but leading civil society figures are subject to intimidation, and NGO operations are somewhat constrained by onerous regulations. Under the NGO Act, an organization’s registration can be suspended if it is deemed to have departed from its original purpose, engaged in partisan politics, or violated any provisions of the law, among other grounds. The NGO Board has threatened to deregister NGOs, though this had not yet occurred as of 2019.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||3.003 4.004|
The rights to organize labor unions and to strike are legally protected, though workers in poorly defined essential services have only a limited right to strike. Unions are active and collective bargaining is practiced, but retaliation against unregistered unions and strikers is not illegal.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||3.003 4.004|
Judicial independence is generally respected, particularly in the higher courts, though judges sometimes face political pressure. The appointment process for judges lacks transparency, and the judiciary is underfunded, which can also undercut judicial autonomy.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||2.002 4.004|
Arbitrary arrests and detentions are common. Defendants are entitled to legal representation, but in practice they are frequently forced to represent themselves in court. Although the law requires that suspects be released or charged with a crime within 48 hours of arrest, these rights are often denied. Case backlogs contribute to lengthy pretrial detention; those awaiting trial make up about 18 percent of the prison population.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||2.002 4.004|
Police are poorly trained and often ineffective. Police brutality and extrajudicial killings are not uncommon. In a December 2019 report from the Centre for Human Rights Education, Advice, and Assistance, researchers confirmed that the victims in 28 of the 43 alleged extrajudicial killings they investigated had been shot by the police and died in “very suspicious circumstances.”
Prison conditions are dire, characterized by overcrowding and extremely poor health care; many inmates die from disease.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||2.002 4.004|
The constitution explicitly guarantees the rights of all humans. However, consensual sexual activity between same-sex couples remains a crime punishable by up to 14 years in prison. LGBT+ people are subject to arbitrary arrest and detention and are sometimes physically assaulted while in custody.
Despite constitutional guarantees of equal protection, customary practices perpetuate discrimination against women in education, employment, business, and other aspects of life.
People with albinism experience discrimination and have been attacked, abducted, killed, and mutilated. In March 2019, President Mutharika created a commission of inquiry to examine such attacks. Two separate murder cases involving victims with albinism resulted in convictions in May and August.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||2.002 4.004|
The constitution establishes freedom of internal movement and foreign travel, which are generally respected in practice for Malawians. However, according to the United Nations, the government’s policy of confining refugees to designated camps restricts their freedom of movement and impairs their ability to earn a living. Police frequently round up those found outside of the camps and return them.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||2.002 4.004|
Property rights are inadequately protected. Most land is held under customary tenure, and the process of creating titles that would allow legal ownership of land has moved slowly. Customary practices put women at a disadvantage regarding property ownership and inheritance. Starting a business can be a cumbersome process that is worsened by corruption in key government agencies.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||1.001 4.004|
Domestic violence is common, but victims rarely come forward, and police generally do not intervene in domestic violence cases. Child sexual abuse is prevalent. Approximately 42 percent of children marry before they turn 18, in violation of the law.
Some female protesters alleged that police officers raped them during the 2019 postelection demonstrations, according to the Malawi Human Rights Commission. The police service was investigating the allegations at year’s end.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||2.002 4.004|
Revenues from large, state-run industries tend to benefit the political elite. Income inequality remains a problem and inhibits economic mobility.
The enforcement of labor laws is weak, and employees are often paid extremely low wages, despite minimum-wage laws. Child labor is a persistent problem, particularly on tobacco estates. In October 2019, the British law firm Leigh Day announced a class-action lawsuit against British American Tobacco on behalf of 2,000 Malawian farmers over forced labor and child labor practices. Shortly thereafter, the United States announced that it would suspend imports of Malawian tobacco due to evidence of forced labor.
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Global Freedom Score66 100 partly free
Internet Freedom Score57 100 partly free