Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Malawi’s civil liberties rating improved from 4 to 3 due to a decline in police and government excesses against the political opposition.
Malawi’s political life remained contentious in 2006. While an effort to impeach President Bingu wa Mutharika dissipated, his government remained at loggerheads with the former governing party, the United Democratic Front, and its key members. Attempts to dismiss Vice President Cassim Chilumpha were overshadowed by his arrest on treason charges in April 2006. Former president Bakili Muluzi, who was out of the country for the first six months of the year, was arrested shortly after his return to Malawi in July. The case against him was then abruptly discontinued when the director of the Anti-Corruption Bureau was fired. Government intimidation of opposition members (especially rank and file) was less apparent in 2006 than in previous years.
After the country gained independence from Britain in 1963, President Hastings Kamuzu Banda ruled Malawi for nearly three decades, acquiring the title of president for life in 1971. Banda exercised dictatorial and often eccentric rule through the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and its paramilitary youth wing, the Malawi Young Pioneers. Facing an economic crisis and strong domestic and international pressure, Banda accepted a popular referendum approving multiparty rule in 1993. Bakili Muluzi of the United Democratic Front (UDF) won the presidency in a 1994 election that was beset by irregularities but seen as largely free and fair.
In the June 1999 presidential poll, Muluzi won 51 percent of the vote, compared with 44 percent for leading opposition candidate Gwanda Chakuamba of the MCP and the Alliance for Democracy (MCP-AFORD). Chakuamba and two other presidential candidates sued the electoral commission, contending that Muluzi failed to win votes from more than half of the eligible electorate; the Supreme Court upheld the results of the election. In polls for the National Assembly in 1999, the ruling UDF retained a slim majority.
During Muluzi’s second term, politics revolved around the question of whether he would attempt to amend the constitution to stand for a third term. An unpopular campaign in favor of such a move ended when Muluzi handpicked Bingu wa Mutharika, a relative political outsider, as his successor for the May 2004 elections. Mutharika went on to win the presidency on an anticorruption platform with 35 percent of the vote; his closest rival, John Tembo of the MCP, captured 27 percent. Contrary to expectations, the MCP won the most seats, 59, in the 193-seat Parliament, while the UDF finished second with 49. The UDF regained its majority status shortly after the elections, however, when it merged with its former rival, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), and benefited from the recruitment of 23 independent legislators.
In early 2005, a very public dispute between Mutharika and former president Muluzi, who remained the UDF chairman, reached a crescendo. The main cause was the investigation and arrest of several powerful UDF figures—including Muluzi—as part of Mutharika’s anticorruption campaign. Mutharika resigned from the UDF and formed a new political party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), widening the rift with Muluzi and depriving the UDF of a parliamentary majority.
The falling-out between Mutharika and the UDF set the stage for the contentious patterns that continue to characterize Malawian politics. The clearest sign of this has been conflict between Mutharika and his opponents (the UDF and the MCP) in the legislature. In June 2005, the UDF lodged a motion in the National Assembly to impeach Mutharika, provoking protests in Malawi’s major cities and towns. During the heated debate on the issue, the Parliament’s Speaker suffered a stroke, dying days later. While this brought the impeachment push to a temporary halt, in October 2005, the opposition accused Mutharika of various crimes and ordered him to appear before the body. The motion to impeach was later delayed by the High Court and the Constitutional Court. By January 2006, talk of impeachment had died down. But relations between the branches remained hostile, as seen in a lengthy struggle to pass the budget in July 2006.
Mutharika has also clashed with leading individuals in the UDF. In the latter part of 2005, for example, Muluzi was summoned before Malawi’s Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) to answer questions about millions of dollars in aid money received during his presidency. The High Court later ruled that Muluzi did not have to appear before the ACB. Although he was out of the country for the first half of 2006, Muluzi was arrested soon after his return and charged by the ACB with 42 counts of public theft. Curiously, only hours after arresting Muluzi, the head of the ACB was fired by Mutharika. The case against Muluzi was then discontinued by the director of public prosecutions, who was also fired weeks later. Vice President Cassim Chilumpha, a Muluzi backer, has also been embroiled in such struggles. Chilumpha was charged with corruption in November 2005. Then, in February 2006, he was fired by Mutharika, despite the latter’s lack of clear constitutional authority to do so. Chilumpha was restored to his position by the courts, which subsequently ruled that he could not be dismissed on the grounds put forward by the government. However, in April, he was arrested and charged with treason over an alleged assassination plot against Mutharika. Under house arrest for much of the year, he was freed in November when the High Court ruled that such conditions were too stringent and a violation of his human rights.
In some respects, the political situation in 2006 seemed to bode well for Mutharika. The DPP handily won by-elections in six constituencies in late 2005, its first test at the polls. In January, the original impeachment motion against the president was withdrawn by a UDF member of Parliament (MP), who later left the party. In the wake of this, an increasing number of MPs defected from other parties to the DPP. By April, the party and its allies could boast 74 seats in the 193-seat Parliament. Moreover, when Muluzi was out of the country in the first part of the year, the UDF was beset by leadership squabbles; similar problems afflicted the MCP.
Mutharika has also benefited from amicable relations with international donors, who account for 80 percent of Malawi’s development budget. Past accusations of corruption and mismanagement had dried up donor support and led the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to freeze fund distributions in 2000. However, Malawi has recently been lauded for its efforts to curtail corruption and public spending. Mutharika’s government also received some credit for effectively coordinating an international relief effort to address the drought and food crises that afflicted the country in 2005 and 2006. In September 2006, the World Bank and the IMF agreed that Malawi had made sufficient progress to reach the “completion point” under the Enhanced Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative. As a result, Malawi will receive $3.1 billion in total nominal debt relief on principal as well as interest payments.
At the same time, problems remain for Mutharika. Section 65 of the constitution forbids MPs from changing parties after they have been elected. The UDF attempted to use this against MPs who switched to the DPP, asking the Speaker of Parliament to declare their seats vacant in October 2005. Mutharika then referred the case to the Constitutional Court for interpretation. In November 2006, the Court ruled that the Speaker could declare such seats vacant, raising the prospect that up to 70 DPP members could lose their seats. Subsequent by-elections would then determine the balance of power in Parliament, most importantly, whether the opposition MCP and UDF would have enough support to proceed with impeachment efforts. In addition, Mutharika has proved a somewhat clumsy and heavy-handed manager. In 2006, he fired his attorney general, the director of public prosecutions, and the director of the Anti-Corruption Board. He has also estranged certain members of his own party in Parliament by declaring that he will not support their reelection in 2009.
Malawi is an electoral democracy. The president is directly elected to a five-year term and exercises considerable executive authority. The unicameral National Assembly is composed of 193 members elected by popular vote to five-year terms. Suffrage is universal except for serving members of the military.
Elections are generally free from overt manipulation, but some have questioned how free and fair the voting has been. In both the 1999 and 2004 polls, voter registration represented a significant challenge. Moreover, both of these contests, as well as certain by-elections, were marked by irregularities, often leading to legal challenges of the results. Perhaps the most troubling factor in presidential races has been the apparent bias that the country’s electoral commission has displayed toward the formerly ruling UDF party. Opposition parties, including the UDF, lost six by-elections to the DPP in December 2005, but they did not challenge the results in court.
Opposition parties are allowed to function freely, although political violence has occasionally flared during election periods, mostly in the form of intimidation of party rallies or canvassing. Police and ruling party thugs frequently used overt violence, intimidation, and harassment against opponents during the third-term debate and in the lead-up to the 2004 elections. However, such government excesses against the opposition have been less apparent recently. The opposition has repeatedly charged that the government uses bribery and intimidation to exploit party divisions and encourage defections. The major opposition party is now the UDF, which cooperates with the MCP. There are few ideological differences among the major political parties. For the most part, Malawian political divisions are based on ethno-regional loyalties and personality rather than policy, leading to frequently shifting alliances and parliamentary floor-crossings.
Vowing “zero tolerance” of corruption, President Mutharika has moved to fulfill campaign promises to crack down on state corruption. At least 11 senior members of the administration of former president Muluzi have been investigated by the Office of Public Prosecutions. Most notable among these have been Vice President Chilumpha and Muluzi himself. Others include former finance minister Friday Jumbe; UDF ranking official and former Blantyre mayor John Chikakwiya, convicted of corruption-related charges in 2005; and UDF stalwart and former presidential hopeful Sam Mpasu, who was charged with abuse of office for tenders he awarded during his time as minister of education in the mid-1990s.
The opposition has charged that the anticorruption drive amounts to little more than a political witch-hunt through which Mutharika has attacked his enemies. While most of the investigations and arrests have targeted Mutharika opponents, some within the government have also been singled out. In 2006, Education Minister Yusuf Mwawa was convicted after being accused of using a special account in the ministry to pay for his wedding. For his part, Mwawa maintained that the money was spent, with the president’s approval, on efforts to lobby MPs to switch to the DPP. While rumors have circulated about other government ministers being investigated, to date no others have been charged.
While international donors have applauded the anticorruption drive, delays in prosecuting cases and the lack of truly high-profile prosecutions have led to some frustration.
Notably, the World Bank and IMF, while authorizing debt relief for Malawi, singled out fighting official corruption as one area where the country had failed to make significant progress. A study conducted by the Anti-Corruption Bureau in 2005 reported that 70 percent of Malawians believe that corruption has increased over the last 10 years. Malawi was ranked 105 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of speech and of the press is legally guaranteed and generally respected. Despite occasional restrictions and harassment, a broad spectrum of opinion is presented in Malawi’s two dozen newspapers. Nevertheless, the state controls the majority of broadcast media: Television Malawi is the country’s only television station, and the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation’s two radio stations dominate the market. The government and the then-ruling UDF restricted opposition access to state-controlled media and became increasingly intolerant of coverage of opposition activities during Muluzi’s bid for a third term and the run-up to the May 2004 elections. However, the situation improved afterward, with the new information minister calling for dissenting views in state-controlled media. Journalists are still subject to harassment and detentions. In March 2005, two journalists were arrested after writing unflattering articles about Mutharika; both were later released on bail. In May 2006, three journalists from the Chronicle newspaper were arrested on criminal libel charges for publishing a story that implicated fired Attorney General Ralph Kasambara in the theft of a laptop computer. There are no restrictions on access to the internet, although it is not widely used.
Religious freedom is usually respected, and the government does not restrict academic freedom.
The government generally respects freedoms of association and assembly. Many human rights organizations—including the constitutionally mandated Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC)—and other nongovernmental organizations operate openly and without interference. The right to organize labor unions and to strike is legally protected, with notice and mediation requirements for workers in essential services. Unions are active but face harassment and occasional violence during strikes. As only a small percentage of the workforce is employed in the formal sector, union membership is low; however, collective bargaining is practiced.
The judiciary has demonstrated independence in its decisions, although more so at the High Court than the Supreme Court. The Muluzi administration sought to influence Supreme Court judges by retaining private contacts with members of the bench and rewarding some with patronage. Such practices have apparently been less common under Mutharika.
Due process is not always respected by the overburdened court system, which lacks resources, personnel, and training. Resource mismanagement is also a problem. Police brutality and excessive force is reportedly common, as are arbitrary arrests and detentions. However, the government has enlisted civil society and foreign donors in helping to combat human rights abuses and corruption among police. Appalling prison conditions lead to many deaths every year, mostly from HIV/AIDS. Overcrowding and poor health care are serious problems.
The constitution prohibits discrimination based on language or culture, and such discrimination is not a major problem. There are no laws limiting the participation of ethnic minorities in the political process.
Since coming to power, Mutharika has targeted informal settlements and the informal economy. In August 2005, authorities ordered residents of informal settlements in Lilongwe to vacate their homes or risk forced removal. The government contended that the homes were built illegally on land earmarked for industrial development and ruled that affected residents would not be compensated. Some residents claimed to have received permission to occupy the land from local chiefs, municipal officials, or the Malawi Housing Corporation. In April 2006, government efforts to remove informal vendors generated a considerable degree of tension as the vendors vowed to defy government orders to vacate; they ultimately complied as police threatened to use force.
Despite constitutional guarantees of equal protection, customary practices maintain de facto discrimination against women in education, employment, and business. Traditional rural structures deny women inheritance and property rights, and violence against women is common, though in recent years there have been greater media attention on and criminal penalties for abuse and rape. In 2003, the MHRC issued a report documenting the revival of the customary practice of kupimbira , in which young girls are sold by their parents or grandparents to pay off debts or secure loans of cattle or money. Trafficking in women and children is a problem, and penalties for the few successfully prosecuted traffickers have been criticized as far too lenient.