Malawi holds regular elections and has undergone multiple transfers of power between political parties, though the changes were frequently a result of rifts among ruling elites rather than competition between distinct parties. 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.
Key Developments in 2018:
- At year’s end, the Access to Information Act, which was signed into law in 2017, had still not been implemented.
- The Political Parties Act, which bans politicians from using cash handouts and other incentives to garner votes, came into force in December.
- Former agriculture minister George Chaponda, who allegedly facilitated maize purchases from Zambia in 2016 at an inflated price, in a corruption scandal known as Maizegate, was acquitted on graft charges related to the purchases in May.
- In December, a court issued an injunction that prevented the parliament from debating the draconian NGO Act Amendment Bill, pending a judicial review of the legislation.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 26 / 40
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 8 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4
In Malawi, the president is directly elected for five-year terms and exercises considerable executive authority. Malawi’s last general election was held in 2014. The polls were marred by logistical problems and postelection controversy surrounding allegations of vote rigging made by incumbent president Joyce Banda, but were largely regarded as credible by local and international observers. Peter Mutharika of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was declared the winner, with 36 percent of the vote. Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) placed second, with 28 percent.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4
The unicameral National Assembly is comprised of 193 members elected by popular vote to five-year terms. The last legislative elections, held concurrently with the presidential election in 2014, were generally regarded as credible, despite a number of irregularities and logistical problems. In the parliamentary elections, the DPP won the most seats with 50.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 2 / 4
Although it lacks resources and is often unprepared to carry out elections, the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) is generally viewed as impartial. Two biometric voter registration kits went missing in August 2018, which led to further questions about the MEC’s competence. Civil society groups and opposition parties demanded an independent investigation into the loss of the equipment, but authorities had not complied with these demands at year’s end.
International analysts have called for requiring political parties to disclose their sources of financing and to report on campaign spending.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 12 / 16
B1. 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 / 4
Malawi has four main political parties—the DPP, the MCP, the People’s Party (PP), and the United Democratic Front (UDF)—all of which have held power at some point. The parties are loosely formed, with politicians frequently moving between parties or breaking away to form their own parties.
For the most part, people can organize in political parties without undue burden. However, the government has frequently held up the registration of new parties that present a threat to the incumbent. In July 2018, Vice President Saulos Chilima left the ruling DPP to form his own party, the United Transformation Movement (UTM). The party’s registration was rejected on a technicality related to the party’s name. In November, the High Court in Blantyre ruled that the party should be registered within seven days. The attorney general appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of Appeal, which upheld the ruling, and the UTM was subsequently registered.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 3 / 4
Political parties are generally able to campaign freely throughout the country. Opposition parties have demonstrated their ability to grow their support and gain power through elections. However, an opposition party has never defeated an elected incumbent party since the transition to democracy in 1994. Although President Mutharika defeated Joyce Banda of the PP in 2014, Banda only came to power in 2012 after the death of Mutharika’s older brother, former president Bingu wa Muthariku, who was also a member of the DPP.
The playing field during election campaigns is often skewed toward the governing party. During the year, opposition parties accused the state-owned broadcaster, the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), of bias toward the DPP in its coverage of the upcoming 2019 general elections. As a result, opposition parties have sought exposure from private broadcasters.
Opposition parties sometimes face violence and intimidation. In April 2018, DPP youths reportedly attacked MCP supporters during the campaign for a parliamentary by-election in Mulanje.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 3 / 4
Local traditional leaders can have an influence on voters’ choices, especially in smaller villages. Some chiefs have publically endorsed the incumbent, which is likely to sway the opinion of their constituents. In December 2018, the government implemented a 100 percent increase in the financial honoraria chiefs receive for service to their communities. Some opposition leaders suggested that the move was intended to solidify chiefs’ support for the DPP ahead of the 2019 polls.
To address vote buying, which has been frequently employed by political parties in past elections, in 2017 the parliament passed the Political Parties Act, which came into force in December 2018. The law bans politicians from using cash handouts and other incentives to garner votes.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4
All ethnic, religious, and gender groups have full political rights. However, women remain underrepresented in politics, and according to Afrobarometer, are less likely than men to become politically involved. In May 2018, the MEC announced that women would pay 25 percent less than men to register as a parliamentary candidate in the 2019 elections, in an effort to encourage more female candidates. While more women ran as candidates in the 2014 elections, only 32 were elected to the 193-seat National Assembly.
Political parties often appeal to ethnic, regional, and religious groups. The LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community faces societal discrimination, and political parties do not advocate for LGBT rights in their platforms. In 2018, six people with albinism declared their intention to run for the parliament or local races in the 2019 elections, in an effort to advocate for their rights and highlight ongoing discrimination against the marginalized group.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 6 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 3 / 4
Executive and legislative representatives are generally able to determine the policies of government unhindered. However, patronage and clientelism are common, and wealthy business leaders often have great influence over policymaking, forging relationships with elected officials and extracting policy outcomes favorable to their business interests.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 1 / 4
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 compromised. A number of major corruption scandals have shaken Malawi in recent years, and high-level officials have generally acted with impunity. Former agriculture minister George Chaponda, who allegedly facilitated maize purchases from Zambia in 2016 at an inflated price, in a corruption scandal known as Maizegate, was acquitted on graft charges related to the purchases in May 2018.
A report by the ACB which was leaked in June contained allegations that President Mutharika received a kickback in 2016 from a $4 million contract with a firm to provide food to the police force. Mutharika vehemently denied the claims, while civil society leaders called for the president’s resignation.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 2 / 4
Malawi lacks budgetary transparency; the government still fails to make year-end budget audit reports available to the public.
At year’s end, the Access to Information Act, which was signed into law in 2017, had still not come into effect. Civil society groups sharply criticized the government for its failure to implement the law.
Laws require high-level public officials to declare their assets and other financial interests while in public service. Mutharika declared his assets in 2015, but many legislators and other officials fail to do so. President Mutharika took no action against cabinet minister Grace Chiumia, who reportedly failed to declare her assets in 2017, despite an October 2018 letter from the director of public officers’ declarations recommending that she be removed from office.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 38 / 60 (+1)
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 14 / 16 (+1)
D1. Are there free and independent media? 3 / 4
Freedom of the press is legally guaranteed and generally respected in practice. However, news outlets have experienced intimidation. In June 2018, authorities shut down the headquarters of the Times Group media conglomerate, whose outlets have criticized the government. The government claimed that the closure was over a tax dispute, but the Times asserted that the shutdown, which lasted for several days, was due to its critical reporting.
Also in June, police officers assaulted two radio journalists with the Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS), who were covering a police crackdown on street vendors in Mzuzu. A vaguely worded cybersecurity law passed in 2016 criminalizes the posting of “offensive” content online, which could place journalists at risk of prosecution. A law against insulting the leader of Malawi remains on the books, although it is rarely enforced.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4
The constitution upholds freedom of religion, and this right is respected in practice.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 / 4 (+1)
Malawi’s education system is largely free from political indoctrination. In recent years, there have been no significant constraints on academic freedom, and students and professors have been free to carry out research and political activities without interference.
Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because there were no reported infringements on academic freedom in recent years, and professors and students are generally able to conduct research and campus advocacy without interference.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 3 / 4
Citizens are largely free to express their personal views on political and sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution. However, many Malawians do not feel comfortable criticizing the government and engage in self-censorship.
Civil society leaders suspect that the government surveils private electronic communications. The Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA) implemented the Consolidated ICT Regulatory Management System (CIRMS), also known as the “spy machine,” in 2017. Although the government claims the system is for quality control, critics fear that it is used to monitor phone calls and text messages.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 8 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 3 / 4
Freedom of assembly is guaranteed in the constitution, but the government has sometimes limited this right. Two nationwide anticorruption protests, in April and September 2018, occurred without interference from security forces. However, in June, police used teargas and live ammunition to disperse the crowd at a meeting of MCP supporters in Blantyre.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 2 / 4
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have generally operated without interference from the government. However, the NGO Act Amendment Bill introduced in 2017 led to an outcry among civil society leaders for potentially placing serious restrictions on their activities. If the bill passes, an NGO board would approve NGOs’ applications for funding from donors and require that the applications align with the policies of the government. NGOs would also be required to register with the NGO board, which would have the power to deregister them. In December 2018, a court issued an injunction that prevented the parliament from debating the bill, pending a judicial review of the legislation.
In January, the government increased annual fees for most local NGOs from approximately $68 to $340. An April ruling by the High Court in Blantyre halted the new fees, but the NGO Board reportedly defied the court order and continued to collect the higher fees throughout the year.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 3 / 4
The rights to organize labor unions and to strike are legally protected, but workers in essential services have limitations on their right to strike. Unions are active and collective bargaining is practiced, but retaliations against unions that are unregistered and strikers are not illegal.
F. RULE OF LAW: 9 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 3 / 4
Judicial independence is generally respected. However, the appointments process for judges lacks transparency and undermines the legitimacy of the judiciary.
Although the judiciary asserted its independence with some rulings in 2018, including the decision that halted debate on the controversial NGO bill, the acquittal of Chaponda in the Maizegate case by the Zomba Magistrate Court, despite arguments from civil society leaders that there was ample evidence against him, raised concerns about the effects of political pressure on judicial decisions.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 2 / 4
Arbitrary arrests and detentions are common in Malawi. Defendants are legally 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 were often denied.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 2 / 4
Police brutality and extrajudicial killings are not uncommon in Malawi. The police are poorly trained and often ineffective. As a result, vigilantism has increased in recent years.
Prison conditions are dire, characterized by overcrowding and extremely poor health conditions; many inmates die from AIDS and other diseases.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 2 / 4
The constitution explicitly guarantees the rights of all humans. However, consensual sexual activity between same-sex couples remains illegal and punishable by up to 14 years in prison. LGBT persons are subject to arbitrary arrests and detainment from police in Malawi, and are sometimes physically assaulted while in detention.
Despite constitutional guarantees of equal protection, customary practices perpetuate discrimination against women in education, employment, business, and inheritance and property rights. Persons with albinism experience discrimination and have been attacked, abducted, killed, and mutilated.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 7 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 2 / 4
The constitution establishes freedom of internal movement and foreign travel, which are generally respected in practice. However, government policy confines refugees to two camps, and the police frequently round up those found outside of the camps and return them.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 2 / 4
Property rights are inadequately protected in Malawi. Most land is held under customary land tenure and the process of creating titles that would allow legal ownership of land have moved slowly. Starting a business can be a cumbersome process, a problem worsened by corruption in several key government agencies.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 1 / 4
Domestic violence is common in Malawi, but victims rarely come forward and the police generally do not intervene in domestic violence cases. Child sexual abuse is prevalent. Around half of all girls are married before the age of 18, in violation of the law.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 2 / 4
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 issue, particularly on tobacco estates.