Political Rights: 4
Civil Liberties: 4
Status: Partly Free
Population: 11,900,000
GNI/Capita: $160
Life Expectancy: 44
Religious Groups: Protestant (55 percent), Roman Catholic (20 percent), Muslim (20 percent), Indigenous beliefs (3 percent), other (2 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Chewa, Nyanja, Lomwe, Ngonde, Tumbuka, Yao, Sena, Tonga, Ngoni, Asian, European
Capital: Lilongwe

Ratings Change
Malawi's political rights rating declined from 3 to 4 due to flawed presidential elections.


Bingu wa Mutharika, the hand-picked successor to long-time president Bakili Muluzi, won controversial elections in May 2004 that opposition parties and international observers described as peaceful but flawed.

After the country gained independence from Britain in 1963, President (later President-for-Life) Hastings Kamuzu Banda ruled Malawi for nearly three decades. Banda exercised dictatorial and often eccentric rule through the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and its paramilitary youth wing, the Malawi Young Pioneers. Facing a domestic economic crisis and strong international pressure, he accepted a referendum approving multiparty rule in 1993. Muluzi won the presidency in an election in 1994 beset by irregularities, but seen as largely free and fair. The army's violent December 1993 dispersal of the Young Pioneers had helped clear the way for the polls.

In the June 1999 presidential poll, Muluzi won 51 percent, compared with 44 percent for leading opposition candidate Gwanda Chakuamba, of the MCP and the Alliance for Democracy (MCP-AFORD). Three presidential contenders 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 United Democratic Front (UDF) managed to retain a narrow majority. Violence erupted in opposition strongholds of northern Malawi after the 1999 election results indicated wins for the UDF. Supporters of MCP-AFORD attacked mosques, shops, and homes of suspected UDF supporters.

An unpopular campaign to amend the constitution to allow Muluzi to run for a third term was effectively ended when the UDF chose 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. The MCP won a majority in the 193-seat parliament, with 56 seats, and the UDF finished second with 49. A seven-party coalition and independent candidates won the remainder.

Observers said the polls were tainted by registration problems and biased campaign coverage by the state-run radio and television stations. A parliamentary inquiry into voting irregularities led to the resignation in August of the chairman of the Malawi Electoral Commission, Justice James Kalaile. In July, the UDF regained its majority status in parliament when 26 independent legislators defected to the ruling party, giving it a total of 75 seats. The UDF had previously merged with one of its fiercest rivals, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), raising concerns that the political opposition was being co-opted. Under a deal reached with Muluzi, who remains the UDF chairman, two other opposition parties also allied themselves with the UDF and dropped legal challenges to the election results.

Vowing "zero tolerance" of corruption, Mutharika has aggressively gone after senior officials of the old government. The Office of Public Prosecutions is investigating 10 former ministers over $93 million that reportedly vanished during Muluzi's decade-long tenure. Several others were arrested in separate corruption cases, including the current director-general of TV Malawi.

While the food crisis that gripped the region in 2002 has eased, the government says that more than a million people will continue to rely on food aid through March 2005.

Agriculture in Malawi employs 80 percent of the labor force, and the economy is dependent on tobacco, which accounts for more than half of exports. Wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small elite. Foreign donors accused the government of corruption and mismanagement in 2002, in part because of the $38 million sale of the country's strategic grain reserves. In 2003, the IMF approved its first loan disbursements to the country since aid was frozen two years earlier. The World Bank has also resumed aid, but other key donors, such as the European Union, are waiting to assess the performance of the new president before following suit.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

The citizens of Malawi can change their government democratically, although there were irregularities in the 2004 presidential elections. The unicameral National Assembly is composed of 193 seats. Members are elected by popular vote to five-year terms. Suffrage is universal except for serving members of the military. The 1994 presidential elections were considered Malawi's first generally free and fair multiparty elections. The country's electoral commission has shown bias in favor of the ruling party on several occasions, and there have been problems with voter registration.

Malawi was ranked 90 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index. The political opposition has repeatedly charged that the government uses bribery and intimidation to exploit opposition party divisions and encourage defections. However, President Mutharika has moved to fulfill campaign promises to crack down on state corruption, and the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) made several arrests and indictments of former high-level government officials during the year.

Freedom of speech and of the press is legally guaranteed and generally respected in practice. Despite occasional restrictions and harassment, a broad spectrum of opinion is presented in Malawi's two dozen newspapers. Nevertheless, there were a number of attacks on the press in 2002 and 2003, allegedly committed by members of the Young Democrats, who are linked to the ruling UDF. After signs that the government was becoming increasingly intolerant of coverage of opposition activities, particularly relating to Muluzi's third-term bid, the situation improved somewhat in 2004. However, in May, just three days after the presidential polls, police arrested four journalists from the community radio station MIJ 90.3 after host Arthur Chokotho interviewed an opposition spokeswoman who accused the ruling party of stealing the elections. All four were released without charge within 24 hours. The station was shut down for a week, until the country's high court ordered it reopened. The Malawi Institute of Journalism has since sued the government for loss of income resulting from the closure. There are no restrictions on access to the Internet, although it is not widely used.

Religious freedom is usually respected, but Muslims were targeted in post-election violence in 1999 in protest against the ruling party. President Bingu wa Mutharika is a Catholic, and his vice president is Muslim. The government does not restrict academic freedom.

The government generally respects freedom of association and assembly. Many human rights organizations and other nongovernmental organizations operate openly and without interference. The right to organize 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. Collective bargaining is widely practiced.

The judiciary has demonstrated broad independence in its decisions, but due process is not always respected by an overburdened court system that lacks resources and training. Police brutality is still said to be common, either while detainees are in custody or when they are just released. In April 2004, police shot dead two youths protesting the death of an opposition sympathizer who had allegedly committed suicide while in custody. Police said the youths had attacked the station house with stones. Arbitrary arrest and detention are common. Appalling prison conditions lead to many deaths, including suffocation from overcrowding. Lengthy pretrial detention is a serious problem.

There are no laws limiting the participation of ethnic minorities in the political process. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on language or culture.

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 reportedly routine. The Malawi Human Rights Commission issued a report in 2003 charging that a sex-slave trade flourishes in remote areas of the North, with young girls sold by their parents to pay off debts. However, there has been increased attention to domestic violence and a greater effort to improve the rights of widows. Women employees recently won the right to maternity leave.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.