Malawi’s New President Has a Golden Opportunity to Build a Better Democracy

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After two weeks of sporadic rioting and legal wrangling, Malawi inaugurated its fifth president on June 2 in Blantyre. Although he received just 36.4 percent of the vote, Arthur Peter Mutharika’s victory has now been accepted by all sides, including the incumbent, Joyce Banda. The last two months have been a political rollercoaster for Mutharika, but he must now turn to the uphill battle of healing divisions and creating the consensus he will need to govern effectively.

Many Malawians are skeptical that Mutharika can succeed. This is partly because even Banda, Malawi’s first female president and the darling of international donors, failed to bring about much-needed political change during her two years in power. She finished a poor third in the latest election, largely due to her inability to solve Malawi’s manifold economic problems and her government’s association with “Cashgate,” an enormous public-sector corruption scandal that resulted in the withdrawal of an estimated $150 million in donor funding.

Others are wary of placing too much hope in Mutharika because of his own track record in government. He was a close adviser to his elder brother, Bingu wa Mutharika, who served as president of Malawi until his sudden death from a heart attack in 2012. During his stints as minister of justice, education, and foreign affairs, Peter Mutharika was a central player within a government that orchestrated a campaign of violence and intimidation against civil society and brought the country to the brink of financial ruin. Peter Mutharika was also implicated in a plot to subvert the constitution and assume power through a palace coup in the hours immediately after his brother passed away. Had he not been elected president, Peter Mutharika might be facing jail time for treason because of his role in the attempted coup.

The new president is unlikely to be perturbed by any of this analysis. During his time in the cabinet he demonstrated that he is a confident leader who seeks to exercise as much authority as possible. In order to do so as Malawi’s new president, however, Mutharika will need a compliant parliament. Unfortunately for him, his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) did poorly in the parliamentary elections, and opposition-aligned members now occupy an impressive 64 percent of the seats.

Out of 192 parliamentary seats, the DPP won just 50. Five opposition parties hold a combined 90 seats. The remaining 52 seats were won by independents, and although 19 have since defected to the DPP, the parliamentary landscape looks similar to that during the elder Mutharika’s first term (2004–09), when a strong opposition exerted positive influence by forcing the government to rule by consensus. In this instance, it could mean that official appointments—for example a new head of the army—are subject to real scrutiny. It is also likely that opposition lawmakers will chair most if not all of the committees in parliament, particularly given the fact that constitutionally mandated panels including the powerful public appointments, budget, and legal affairs committees are required to contain proportional representation of all parties in the National Assembly.

So how is Mutharika likely to approach this dilemma?

One option he had was to use the cabinet formation process to reach across party and regional lines, appointing people who demonstrated a commitment to addressing the concerns of all Malawians, and not perpetuating the nepotism that plagues Malawi’s politics. Mutharika was praised for trimming the government to just 20 ministers, and the cabinet he announced on June 22 included the leader of one opposition party, Atupele Miluzi of the United Democratic Front (UDF). Nevertheless, it has been criticized by many as a missed opportunity to heal regional and tribal differences that sharpened during the electoral campaign. In fact, Mutharika may have aggravated tensions by appointing more than 80 percent of the cabinet from his own ethnic group, and about 75 percent from the southern region, the DPP’s stronghold. Mutharika has also subsumed the Defence Ministry into his own portfolio.

A key concern for the new Mutharika government, as highlighted in his state of the nation address on June 17, is whether it will be able to tackle corruption and respond effectively to the Cashgate scandal. The opposition-heavy parliament has an important opportunity to exert influence on this issue through leadership of portfolio committees, in particular the Public Accounts Committee. The panels have traditionally worked hard in Malawi and provided crucial spaces for cross-party consensus building, away from the heated, adversarial setting of plenary sessions. The new parliament must use its influence to ensure that any investigations and preventative measures are not politically motivated, but universally applied and workable.

Of course, with a parliament so heavily skewed in favor of the opposition, all observers are cognizant of the possibility of mass floor crossing—a popular pastime of Malawian politicians, who regularly change their affiliation to whichever party is in power. Although prohibited by Section 65 of the Malawian constitution, floor crossing has been allowed in the past and is likely to remain a feature of politics for some time to come. Unless the new speaker of parliament, Karonga Nyungwe of the Malawi Congress for Democracy, can prevent it, Mutharika may be tempted to dangle the enticing carrots of public appointments and regionally focused development initiatives to win the loyalty of opposition parties or independent lawmakers. The recent defections by independents to the DPP are a sign that this is already happening.

However, meaningful consensus focused on the national interest is much harder to achieve and should not be based on a simple quid pro quo deal with the opposition.

Time will tell whether Mutharika chooses the high road. He has already promised much in his early days in office. His inaugural address and state of the nation speech were replete with olive branches and commitments to root out corruption, grow the economy, and respect human rights. He has even committed to improving the operating environment for civil society and enacting a freedom of information law.

These are fine words and good intentions, but many people listen to Mutharika with the echo of his brother’s authoritarianism still ringing in their ears. Indeed, most are skeptical that the DPP, left to its own devices, would begin to govern the country effectively. The crucial question is whether the disparate opposition can coalesce to provide the scrutiny and the political will to work across the aisle that will be needed to fulfill the government’s promises.

The next five years could be crucial for Malawi as it attempts to climb out of a period of repression. While it has generally been a peaceful and improving democracy since the early 1990s, the country has suffered a decline in recent years in its basic respect for civil liberties and political rights. Things did improve somewhat during Joyce Banda’s short term in office, but a sustained five years of progressive legal reforms, growing media freedoms, and respect for human rights—all of which are possible under the new administration—would demonstrate that the dip in fortunes now afflicting many emerging democracies across Africa can be reversed through genuine collaboration with the opposition and without strongman tactics.

Photo Credit: United Nations

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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