Malawi

Partly Free
66
100
PR Political Rights 29 40
CL Civil Liberties 37 60
Last Year's Score & Status
66 100 Partly Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.

header1 Overview

Malawi holds regular elections and has undergone multiple transfers of power between political parties, most recently in June 2020. Political rights and civil liberties are for the most part respected by the state. However, corruption is endemic, police brutality is common, and discrimination and violence toward women, members of minority groups, and people with albinism remain problems.

header2 Key Developments in 2021

  • Although the government has committed to addressing corruption, several senior officials were implicated in corruption scandals during the year. In August, the minister of energy, the president’s chief advisor on strategy, and the president of the Alliance for Democracy (AFORD) party were arrested for allegedly attempting to influence the selection of companies to supply oil to the National Oil Company of Malawi.
  • During the first half of the year, the government threatened to withhold union membership fees, which are normally automatically withdrawn from teachers’ salaries, after the Teachers Union of Malawi (TUM) organized a series of strikes demanding high-risk pay and COVID-19 protective equipment. In July, Parliament passed the Labour Relations (Amendment) Act, which provides for an employer’s right to deduct wages from an employee who goes on strike for more than three days a year.

PR Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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. President Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) was elected in June 2020 after receiving 59.34 percent of the vote. Voter turnout reached 64.81 percent. Although election observers were not present due COVID-19-related travel restrictions, the elections were generally considered well-administered, competitive, and credible, reflecting the will of Malawian voters. In August 2021, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which took the second highest vote shares in the election, petitioned the Malawi High Court to nullify Chakwera’s victory. In November, the High Court dismissed the petition.

A2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 five-year terms. The 2019 legislative elections were marked by numerous irregularities and logistical problems. As many as 29 legislative candidates challenged the results in court, and up to 7 candidates were successful. The DPP won 62 seats, followed by the MCP with 55, and the United Democratic Front (UDF) with 10. Smaller parties and independent candidates won the remaining 65 seats. Fourteen legislative by-elections were held in December 2020 and throughout 2021, seven of which were due to the deaths of sitting legislators who contracted the coronavirus; the MCP won six of the open seats The term of the current Parliament was extended to align the next legislative elections with the presidential election in 2025.

A3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 3.003 4.004

Membership of the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) was reconstituted in June 2021, following a High Court ruling determining that four previous MEC commissioners had been illegally appointed. During 2021, the MEC initiated a program to redraw constituency boundaries to ensure a more equitable distribution of voters in each legislative district.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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. While several parties compete in practice, they are loosely organized, with politicians frequently moving between parties or forming their own breakaway groups. Many candidates choose to run as independents in elections. The main political parties are the MCP, the DPP, and the UDF. The DPP, the largest party in the National Assembly, expelled four of its top leaders October 2020 who butted heads with former president Peter Mutharika, who continues to hold significant influence. The four members successfully challenged their expulsion in court, which ordered their interim reinstatement in August 2021.

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 Parliament and, ahead of the 2020 presidential election, were able to mobilize and pass several laws to facilitate the fairness of the polls, despite resistance from the ruling party. The 2020 elections were the first time an opposition party defeated an incumbent since the transition to democracy in 1994.

The governing party generally has a campaigning advantage. Media coverage on the state-owned broadcaster, the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), has historically been partial to the DPP, compelling the opposition to rely on private media to convey their message to the public.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 government honoraria, are supposed to be nonpartisan figures under the law but frequently seek to influence voter choices in practice. Some chiefs publicly endorse candidates during elections and even threaten opposition candidates seeking to campaign in their regions.

The Political Parties Act bans politicians from using cash handouts and other incentives to garner votes. Despite this, a 2020 study by Afrobarometer found that around 16 percent of Malawians had reported being offered food, a gift, or money in return for their vote by a candidate or someone from a political party in the 2019 elections and subsequent byelections.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, 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 are significantly underrepresented in politics and decision-making positions and remain less likely than men to be politically involved. None of the few women candidates for the 2021 legislative byelections won. Only 41 of the 193 seats in the National Assembly and 12 posts in the 31-member cabinet are held by women. Catherine Gotani Hara serves as the speaker of Parliament, the first woman in the country’s history to do so.

Political parties generally do not advocate for the rights of LGBT+ people, who are subject to legal and societal discrimination.

C Functioning of Government

C1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 typically determine the policies of government without hindrance. However, patronage and clientelism are common, and wealthy business leaders often influence policymaking.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 2.002 4.004

Corruption is a significant challenge in Malawi. Although the Chakwera government has committed to addressing the issue, several senior members of his government have been implicated in corruption scandals. In April 2021, an audit of funds to combat the COVID-19 pandemic reported numerous improper payments, abnormal allowances, inaccurate records, and wasteful spending without accurate budgets. Chakwera dismissed the minister of labor later that month in response to the report. In August, the minister of energy, the president’s chief advisor on strategy, and the president of AFORD, were arrested for allegedly attempting to influence the selection of companies to supply oil to the National Oil Company of Malawi.

Civil society leaders have accused the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB), which is responsible for investigating corruption cases, of being ineffective and politically compromised.

President Chakwera has been criticized for appointing family members to high-ranking government positions. In July 2021, he appointed his daughter as Third Secretary to the Malawian embassy in Brussels, and has also appointed his son-in-law, close friends, and relatives of his friends to positions within his cabinet.

C3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 3.003 4.004

The government lacks budgetary transparency, and the government does not make year-end budget audit reports public. President Chakwera has provided regular updates on his government in weekly radio addresses and has appeared twice before Parliament to answer questions from legislators, a legal requirement for his position that previously was not honored.

High-level officials are legally required to declare their assets and other financial interests while in public service, which Chakwera did in August 2020.

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 2.002 4.004

Freedom of the press is legally guaranteed and historically respected in practice. However, news outlets have experienced intimidation and undue regulatory interference in recent years. Most private media houses are owned by political families and often take partisan positions. Journalists sometimes face physical violence while reporting on demonstrations or police activity.

A vaguely worded 2016 cybersecurity law criminalizes the posting of “offensive” content online, which could place journalists at risk of prosecution.

D2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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. Squabbles between Christians and Muslims occasionally flare up but are often peacefully resolved.

D3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 engage in research and political activities without interference.

D4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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. According to a 2020 Afrobarometer survey, 62 percent of Malawians said that they are free to say what they think. However, according to the survey, many Malawians do not feel comfortable criticizing the government and engage in self-censorship. Under the 2016 cybercrime law, individuals can be sued for posting “offensive” content on social and traditional media platforms. A 1967 law against insulting the president of Malawi remains in the penal code, though it is rarely enforced. Civil society leaders have expressed suspicions that the government monitors their electronic communications with technology introduced in 2017.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 3.003 4.004

Freedom of assembly is guaranteed in the constitution. Citizen groups can assemble peacefully, although public gatherings require prior police and local government authorization. Major demonstrations during 2021 included protests over allegations that government officials had embezzled funds allocated to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. However, throughout the year, the government maintained restrictions on the size of public gatherings ostensibly to contain the spread of the coronavirus. In August, leaders of the Center for Democracy and Economic Development Initiatives (CDEDI) were arrested for organizing an “illegal assembly” outside Parliament for defying the Lilongwe City Council’s refusal to authorize their demonstration.

E2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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. Civil society figures deemed to support the opposition have been subject to intimidation and arrests. Bon Kalindo, who led protests over the rising cost of living in December 2021, was arrested and later released on police bail. 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.

E3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 these are limited for workers in poorly defined essential services. Unions are active and collective bargaining is practiced, but retaliation against unregistered unions and strikers is not illegal.

During the first half of 2021, the government threatened to withhold union membership fees, which are normally automatically withdrawn from teachers’ salaries, after the TUM organized a series of strikes demanding high-risk pay and COVID-19 protective equipment. In July, Parliament passed the Labour Relations (Amendment) Act, which provides for an employer’s right to deduct wages from an employee who goes on strike for more than three days a year.

F Rule of Law

F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 3 / 4

Judicial independence is generally respected, particularly in the higher courts. However, the appointment process for judges lacks transparency, and the judiciary is underfunded, which can also undercut judicial autonomy. President Chakwera appointed 12 new High Court judges in 2020.

F2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

F3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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. There are frequent accusations of favoritism in the recruitment of police trainees. Police brutality and extrajudicial killings are not uncommon. Prison conditions are dire and characterized by overcrowding, and many prisoners and prison guards contracted COVID-19 during 2021. In December 2021, the Malawi Prison Inspectorate reported that Malawi’s prisons capacity was at 278 percent.

F4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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. A 2020 Afrobarometer survey found that 76 percent of Malawians said they have never experienced unfair treatment based on their ethnic identity. However, same-sex relations remain 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, women experience discrimination in education, politics, employment, business, and other aspects of life. People with albinism experience discrimination and have been attacked, abducted, killed, and mutilated.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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, the government maintained several restrictions on domestic and international travel throughout 2021 to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Police roadblocks are ubiquitous in Malawi and bribes are common at checkpoints. According to the United Nations (UN), 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.

G2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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. A 2016 survey by the Local Government Performance Index (LGPI) established that only 13 percent of Malawian households have documentation proving land ownership. Women are 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.

G3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 women marry before they turn 18, in violation of the law. Customary leaders have spoken out against, and in some cases forced the annulment of underage marriages.

In June 2021, legislators withdrew a bill that sought to allow termination of pregnancy when the pregnant person’s mental or physical health is in danger, in cases of incest and rape, and when there are serious fetal abnormalities. The law was withdrawn after religious and local leaders expressed significant opposition.

Authorities have taken some action against perpetrators of sexual abuse in recent years. In July 2021, the government compensated a group of women who had been raped and sexually assaulted by police officers during protests in 2019. However, none of the implicated police officers have faced legal consequences.

G4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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. In 2020, government raised the tax-free income bracket by more than 100 percent.

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.

On Malawi

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  • Global Freedom Score

    66 100 partly free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    59 100 partly free