Capital: Lilongwe
Population: 13,600,000

Political Rights Score: 3 *
Civil Liberties Score: 4 *
Status: Partly Free

Ratings Change

Malawi's political rights rating improved from 4 to 3 due to a fairer and more competitive presidential election in 2009, greater electoral participation by women, and women's subsequent representation in governing institutions.


In the May 2009 presidential and parliamentary elections, President Bingu wa Mutharika and his Democratic Progressive Party secured comfortable victories. Observers noted that the polls were more fair and competitive than in previous years, though incumbents enjoyed certain advantages, including positive coverage from government-run media outlets. While the climate for the judiciary improved during the year, the government failed to address ongoing corruption and bias in state-run media.

Malawi gained independence from Britain in 1963. President Hastings Kamuzu Banda ruled the country for nearly three decades, exercising dictatorial power through the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and its paramilitary youth wing. Facing an economic crisis and strong domestic and international pressure, Banda accepted a referendum that approved multiparty rule in 1993. Bakili Muluzi of the United Democratic Front (UDF) won the presidency in a 1994 election that was generally perceived as free and fair. He was reelected in 1999.

Muluzi handpicked Bingu wa Mutharika, a relative political outsider, as his successor ahead of the May 2004 presidential election. Mutharika defeated his MCP opponent, while the MCP led the concurrent parliamentary elections. In early 2005, a rift between Mutharika and Muluzi, who remained the UDF chairman, worsened after several powerful UDF figures were arrested as part of Mutharika's new anticorruption campaign. Mutharika resigned from the UDF and formed the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which many lawmakers then joined. With the UDF and the MCP forming an opposition alliance against the president, the remainder of Mutharika's first term was characterized by acute tensions between the executive and legislative branches, sometimes leading to the paralysis of governing institutions, as well as ongoing conflict between Mutharika and Muluzi and his allies.

Despite predictions that Muluzi would emerge as Mutharika's primary challenger for the May 2009 presidential contest, the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) in March rejected Muluzi's candidacy on the grounds that the two-term limit outlined in the constitution proscribed him from standing again. After a court ruling upheld the MEC decision, Muluzi and the UDF formed an alliance with the head of the MCP, John Tembo, and backed his candidacy for the presidency. Mutharika ran a highly effective cross-regional campaign focused on his provision of public goods, defeating Tembo with approximately 66 percent of the vote. In concurrent parliamentary elections, Mutharika's DPP won a total of 112 seats in the 193-seat legislature; the MCP took 26, and the UDF captured 17, leaving independent candidates and smaller parties with the remaining seats. Reflecting the dominance of the governing party, parliament has proved a more effective governing partner, as witnessed in the easy passage of legislation in the aftermath of the elections.

According to international and domestic election observers, the 2009 polls were more free and competitive than in previous years. Despite isolated instances of violence between party supporters, candidates enjoyed a more open campaign environment, polling day was peaceful, and there was little post-election turmoil. However, incumbents had a clear advantage due to the use of state resources during the campaign period and a clear bias on government-controlled media outlets. In addition, irregularities in parliamentary races led to legal challenges after the announcement of results.

International donors, which account for 80 percent of Malawi's development budget, have widely applauded economic management under the Mutharika administration. In December 2007, the United States announced Malawi's eligibility for financial support under the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) initiative. Separately, the IMF approved a $77.2 Million Exogenous Shocks Facility for Malawi in late 2008, making it the first country to receive funds under the facility. While relations with international financial institutions have been positive, President Mutharika criticized their policies in November 2009, claiming that they had contributed to foreign exchange shortages in the country. Dramatic improvements in agricultural output, partially credited to a popular fertilizer subsidy program, have helped the country to achieve solid economic growth rates over the last few years. The economy grew at a rate of 5.9 percent in 2009.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Malawi is an electoral democracy. The president is directly elected for five-year terms and exercises considerable executive authority. The unicameral National Assembly is composed of 193 members elected by popular vote to serve five-year terms. The 2009 presidential and parliamentary elections, though characterized by an uneven playing field in favor of the incumbents, were the most fair and competitive since the first multiparty elections in 1994. While in previous years opposition groups had questioned the impartiality and legitimacy of the MEC, key observers concluded that it operated during the 2009 elections with sufficient transparency.

The main political parties are the ruling DPP, the opposition MCP, and the UDF. In the past, the effectiveness of the opposition had been undermined by the president's refusal to call parliament into session, and the government had targeted members of the UDF with corruption charges. However, the opposition was able to organize and campaign freely during the 2009 elections.

While President Bingu wa Mutharika has pledged to fight corruption, opposition and civil society groups have charged that the effort has been directed primarily at Mutharika's political opponents. During his first term, a number of individuals associated with the previous government were investigated and charged with corruption, leading to several convictions. After years of investigation and two prior arrests, former president Bakili Muluzi was arrested again in 2009 and charged with 86 counts related to his alleged theft of public resources during his time in office. His trial remained ongoing at the year's end. Separately, a report by Malawi's auditor general issued in August 2009 indicated that government agencies had lost millions of dollars between 2005 and 2007, due to overcharging, theft, and dubious procurements. Anticorruption efforts have been undermined by the shifting leadership and personnel turnover at the Anti-Corruption Bureau. However, a new National Anti-Corruption Strategy was launched in 2009, which includes a plan to establish "integrity committees" in public institutions. Malawi ranked 89 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedom of the press is legally guaranteed. Despite occasional restrictions, Malawi's dozen or so newspapers present a diversity of opinion. There are some 20 radio stations and 2 television stations in the country. However, the government-controlled Malawi Broadcasting Corporation and TV Malawi – the historically-dominant outlets in the country – display a significant bias in favor of the government. In the lead-up to the 2009 elections, broadcasts from these outlets took a strongly pro-government position, garnering criticism from local and international election observers. Independent media outlets are playing an increasingly important role and have been able to operate without substantial interference. However, those outlets associated with the political opposition have been the target of government harassment. During the May 2009 elections, Muluzi's Joy Radio was briefly closed for allegedly broadcasting a political message, which violated laws forbidding such broadcasts immediately before the polling period.

Religious freedom is generally respected, and the government does not restrict academic freedom.

The government generally upholds freedoms of association and assembly. In contrast to previous years, opposition groups, most notably the UDF, encountered few difficulties holding rallies in 2009. However, one student demonstration against the poor diet at a teacher-training college was disrupted by police in May.

Many nongovernmental organizations – including the constitutionally mandated Malawi Human Rights Commission – operate 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, and collective bargaining is practiced, but workers face harassment and occasional violence during strikes. Since only a small percentage of the workforce is formally employed, union membership is low.

During Mutharika's first term, the generally independent judiciary became involved in political disputes and faced government hostility. While there were no recorded instances of harassment of judges in 2009, Mutharika dismissed the inspector general of police in February 2009, allegedly for questioning the use of the police band for pro-government political rallies. Due process is not always respected by the overburdened court system, which lacks resources, personnel, and training. Police brutality is reportedly common, as are arbitrary arrests and detentions. Prison conditions are appalling, with many inmates dying from AIDS and other diseases.

The government maintains respect for private property and has generally embraced free-market principles. However, in May 2009 the president publically criticized tobacco purchasers from multi-national firms for the low prices offered to producers. Four representatives of such firms were served with deportation orders in September because their conduct was not "consistent with the development agenda of Malawi."

Despite constitutional guarantees of equal protection, customary practices perpetuate discrimination against women in education, employment, business, and inheritance and property rights. Violence against women and children remains a serious concern, though in recent years there has been greater media attention on and criminal penalties for abuse and rape. Abusive practices, including forced marriages and the secret initiation of girls into their future adult roles through forced sex with older men remain widespread. The practice of kupimbira, in which young girls of any age are sold by families to pay off debts, still exists in some areas. Trafficking in women and children, both locally and to locations abroad, is a problem. Penalties for the few successfully prosecuted traffickers have been criticized as too lenient.

Malawian women recorded significant gains in the 2009 elections. A large number of women ran as parliamentary candidates, and Joyce Banda became the first female vice president in the country's history. Women hold 22 percent of the seats in parliament and 26 percent in the cabinet.

*Countries are ranked on a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom and 7 representing the lowest level of freedom.

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