Democratic Backsliding in Malawi

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Malawi_protestIn the last few months democracy has come under attack in a number of African states. As a result, Democracy in Africa will therefore be turning the spotlight on these countries for the next month or so.  We begin with Elena-Daniela Baches discussion of Malawi, which many commentators expect to be the ‘next Zimbabwe’. 

Democracy is fundamentally about the way citizens are able to take part in the decision-making process and bargain with their governments over policy issues. This requires the basic acceptance of political rights and civil liberties, processes of negotiation between the people and the state that are controlled by the people, and formal institutions designed to prevent decline of democracy and the deepening of authoritarian practices. At first glance, Malawi appears to be a democratic country with a multi-party system, a constitution that defines the relationship between three separate branches of power, and parliamentary and presidential elections every five years. However, Malawi is not a country landlocked only geographically; it is also politically far removed from the more democratic nations of southern Africa.  Last year South Africa’s Mail & Guardian reported that the police had beaten journalists in churches and hospitals as the government struggled to contain mounting popular dissatisfaction.

Having achieved independence from the British in 1964, Malawi knew 30 years of single-party rule followed by a referendum which introduced a multi-party constitutional democracy. The current president, Bingu wa Mutharika, initially came to power having been nominated by the outgoing president, Bakili Muluzi.  Mutharika was subsequently re-elected in 2009, in polls that international actors deemed to be largely free and fair. However, since securing a second term in office Mutharika’s democratic discourse has been contradicted by the regime’s public policies that many believe is leading Malawi back to dictatorship. In a paper for the APPP, Diana Cammaktalks about a “transition without transformation” which has centralised power in the hands of the president and cultivated patronage politics. In 2011, the Economist Democratic Index listed Malawi in 84th place, among he set of hybrid regimes, with low levels of civil liberties and political participation.

Since the summer of 2011, the number of anti-government demonstrations has grown steadily due to concerns about the abuses perpetrated by Mutharika’s government and a series of economic complaints including fuel shortages, power cuts, restrictions on currency exchange, unemployment, and a lack of food. Despite having declared that it had achieved a zero-deficit budget in December 2011, and promises to increase salaries by 7%, the Government hasn’t done anything yet to reduce poverty and unemployment. The protests were led by a group of about 80 civil society organizations collectively known as ‘Concerned Citizens’, with a number of rallies culminating in a ‘stay at home’ general strike on 21 September.  Reports suggest that many banks closed but it is hard to know how many people participated and what impact the strike had on the wider economy.

In part, this is because it is getting harder and harder for people to expose the government’s failings and the depth of feeling against the Mutharka regime.  In July 2011 at least 18 people lost their lives after riot policy unleashed a wave of violence against protestors, whom Mutharika accused of being ‘led by Satan’.  Having blamed journalists for the protests and closed the country’s radio stations in the ‘national interest’, the government began attacking the press.  Reports suggest that at least 6 journalists were severely beaten, while private media houses shut down when they received news that their buildings were about to be burnt down.

Malawi is currently ranked number 146 in the world in the index of Worldwide Press Freedom and this is likely to get worse: new media legislation effectively gives the Government the power to decide what is in the public’s interest and hence what can and cannot be published. But despite the government’s best efforts to silence opposition, it seems unlikely that the protests will simply go away. Instead, anger among the poorest groups in society continues to grow and is likely to intensify: according to some analysts and NGO experts, Malawi is facing the worst economic crisis since its independence in 1964. Protesters, as well as civil society, media and opposition legislators, compare the situation to what is happening in nearby Zimbabwe.

One consequence of Malawi’s democratic descent has been that foreign aid, especially from Europe, has continued to diminish. In 2011, the British ambassador to Malawi was expelled after his concern at the increasingly autocratic leadership in Lilongwe was made public. In response, the UK decided to cut all direct aid, which represented about £19 million. At the same time, the European Union and the IMF announced major aid cuts last month as a consequence of the current governance situation and the country’s failure to introduce economic reforms.  This trend represents a significant threat to the country’s socio-economic security in itself, given that 40% of the country’s budget comes from foreign donors.

Relations with western donors seem unlikely to improve any time soon. Instead, Malawi’s economic and political difficulties are resulted in a shift in the government’s foreign policy strategy: despite historically adopting a pro-Western attitude, president Mutarika’s has started to show an interest in developing stronger ties with China, noting that ‘China does not intervene in Malawi’s internal affairs although it provides multimillion dollar infrastructure development assistance.’ It remains to be seen if the Chinese government is willing to be seen to prop up an increasingly brutal and inefficient regime.

This all raises the question of whether Malawi might at some point experience an African version of the Arab Spring. Is there a possibility that the opposition might overthrow Mutharika?  If so, would this actually lead to an improvement in the quality of democracy? Would Malawi be able to enjoy economic growth and stability under a different regime, or are its underlying economic realities so bad that the country is doomed to remain underdeveloped? What impact will regional and international actors have on the prospects for a change of regime?  The answers are not all positive.

Although African countries have shared similar political and economic experiences, trying to predict the evolution democracy in the continent without considering each country as a special case is a futile task.  In Malawi’s case, the country’s degree of democratic vulnerability stems from weak and compromised institutions and a political process which has become dominated by a neo-patrimonial logic. Power has been increasingly centralized under the President, with little protection for civil society and opposition groups. Opposition parties struggle to raise funds to compete with the ruling party because they are denied access to state resources. These factors, along with in-fighting within parties, poorly performing governments, and the use of political violence, have led to the disengagement of the electorate.

Many scholars such as Taylor & Bauer, Politics in Southern Africa, 2011 have pointed to this culture of disengagement as one of the main weaknesses of Malawi’s democratic experiment, as it has generated ‘a weak civil society and limited anti-government activism’ (Gillman, The Dance of Politics, 2009). Since 1994, the co-optation of major opposition groups by the ruling party before elections, and the failure of successive regimes to deliver on their promises, and the absence of effective civil society organizations capable of mobilizing mass support, have all been the cause of decreasing participation and increasing resignation. However, this may be changing with the emergence of the Concerned Citizens collective.

Military engagement also seems unlikely, but is possible. The armed forces stepped in to disband the militias that Malawi’s first president, Hastings Banda, had established in order to reduce his reliance on any one coercive actor. The use of militias to repress protestors in recent months will not have sat well with many military leaders, and will test their loyalty to the president in the coming months. Significantly, reports suggest that after the military refused to fire on the protesters, Mutharika was forced to hire Zimbabwean mercenaries to do the job for him.

It is also hard to imagine that regional actors will want to get heavily involved in Malawi’s domestic affairs. Mutharika has not stolen an election, and so he is likely to come under less international pressure to reform. He has also agreed to respect term-limits and step down in 2014 which is likely to diffuse criticism – although the ruling party has announced that he will be replaced by his brother, Peter Mutharika, so little is likely to change. Moreover, the absence of a strong opposition movement – such as the MDC in Zimbabwe – means that concerned regional and international actors will find it hard to identify groups that they can work through to effect change. The United Nations has attempted to intervene, trying to establish a dialogue between the protestors and the government, but the talks quickly broke down and Mutharika has yet to be effectively sanctioned for his actions. In absence of functional alternatives to the present political situation, and in a context of poverty, illiteracy and lacking freedom, it is difficult to imagine the renewal of the Malawian democracy as a result of a social upheaval. But then, this is just what commentators were saying on the eve of the Arab Spring…

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