How does change happen? Lessons from Malawi

Nic Cheeseman and Golden Matonga explore the factors behind a remarkable political breakthrough in Malawi

In June 2019, Malawi’s democracy appeared to be in decline. President Peter Mutharika had just been declared the official winner of controversial presidential polls that were denounced by opposition parties and civil society groups. Mass protests regularly brought urban areas to a standstill but failed to move the government, raising fears that prolonged political deadlock might lead to more serious unrest.

Just over a year later, Malawi is celebrating a remarkable series of democratic achievements that culminated in the nullification of the 2019 poll, a “fresh election”, and a peaceful transfer of power via the ballot box. So what made change possible?

Perhaps, the most important two lessons to take away from Malawi are that change never has just one cause or driver, and that people power is critical to strengthening the independence and effectiveness of democratic institutions.

A quick review of the steps that the country took between 2019 and 2020 reveals the different ingredients that came together to make change happen.

Let us start with the election result itself.

In 2019, despite opinion polls suggesting they would lose if they ran separately, calls for unity between the two main opposition parties – Lazarus Chakwera’s Malawi Congress Party and Saulos Chilima’s United Transformation Movement – fell on deaf ears and they consequently divided the vote.

Together they would have taken 55% of the poll and with it, victory—even going by the discredited official results. Divided, they made it easier for Mutharika and his Democratic Progressive Party to hold on to power.

Chakwera and Chilima quickly learned the value of unity – forged during their common struggle against the 2019 election outcome – and came together to form the Tonse Alliance with Chakwera as presidential candidate and Chilima as running mate.

This was not easy – senior figures within MCP had to step aside to make room for Chilima and his allies – but it allowed them to secure a winning margin so large (58% – 41% = 17%) that it was all but impossible for the ruling party to rig the outcome.

But this is only part of the story. The election might have never taken place had the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) not got a new Chair, Chifundo Kachale, who replaced the controversial Jane Ansah. Kachale brilliantly navigated a combination of political and logistical obstacles, despite only taking over two weeks before the election.

In particular, Kachale had to persuade the government to actually release the money to allow the election to go ahead and make sure that there was no more questions about “tippex” in the tallying process.

That he did such a good job – largely in the absence of donor funding or international assistance – was partly due to his dedication, intelligence and creativity. But it was also underpinned by the fact that under Malawian law, the president could not select just anyone to replace Ansah – the Chair of the MEC has to be a high court judge. This prevented Mutharika from simply appointing a “yes man” willing to do his bidding.

Kachale’s political independence was critical to the elections being credible, yet this too is only part of the story. Malawi only held a “fresh” election in 2020 because first the Constitutional Court and later the Supreme Court ruled that the 2019 polls had been flawed. Indeed, the Courts went well beyond simply striking down Mutharika’s victory, stipulating that victors in presidential elections must win 50%+1 of the vote, and setting out a timeframe for the fresh elections.

In turn, this decision did not come out of a vacuum, but was itself the product of a long history of institutional evolution in which judges who had previously acted to defend democracy and recent reforms had boosted their agency and confidence. The judges of the Constitutional Court even refused a large bribe from the ruling party .

Even this, however, might have mattered little if the ruling party had been able to use the security forces to simply override the courts and the popular will.  It was therefore critical that the Malawian armed forces do not simply respond to the whim of the president. During the 2019 post-election protests, the military was widely seen to be sympathetic to the protestors, and in some cases even took steps to protect them from the police. Again, this political independence did not emerge in a vacuum.

President Mutharika actually sought to bring the armed forces onside by firing the head of the military General Vincent Nundwe and his deputy in March and replacing them with figures more to his liking. But the military has a track record of acting to defend the rule of law during political transitions. Even under new leadership, Mutharika knew that it was likely that the armed forces would refuse to intervene to undermine democracy.

When all these points are considered together, it becomes clear that far-reaching political change required both good leadership – of the opposition, military, judiciary, and electoral commission – and the incremental strengthening of key democratic institutions over many years. Without any one of these processes, the 2020 election might have turned out very differently – or even not have been held at all. Malawi’s democratic breakthrough might have the appearance of a sudden rupture, but it was made possible by a long-term process of incremental change.

This raises the question of why this institutional change has occurred and why so many institutions came together to defend democracy in 2020. There are a number of possible answers to this question and more research is needed when the dust has settled. One of the most likely explanations, however, is that people power encouraged institutions to check the abuse of power. As both Kim Yi Dionne and Peter vonDoepp have argued, judicial independence is related to popular support for democratic norms and for the sitting president. Given this, the “year of protests” organized by the Human Rights Defenders Coalition, an influential civil society consortium that bravely brought thousands of people to the streets on a regular basis to campaign against the 2019 election, was particularly important because it significantly increased the pressure on key democratic institutions and those working within them.

Along with a growing sense that the popular will had turned against Mutharika and the DPP – something confirmed by pre-election surveys – this emboldened judges, electoral officials and others to stand up and be counted. In this way, the impressive performance of political institutions, and the country’s democratic progress itself, is rooted in the hard work of civil society groups and the efforts and aspirations of hundreds of thousands of Malawian citizens.

Events in Malawi have rightly inspired pro-democracy activists across Africa, but they will be hard to replicate. Gradual institutional strengthening takes time, and mobilising large numbers of people requires a combination of effective civil society organisations and mass popular engagement.

Many countries in the region are starting from a less promising position. In nearby Zambia, the courts are under the thumb of President Lungu. In Zimbabwe, the military is deeply entwined with the ruling party. In Tanzania, civil society groups and the media have to operate under tighter restrictions. For these countries, Malawi will be a valuable role model, but a key lesson is that change will not be quick or easy. 

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10 Responses to “How does change happen? Lessons from Malawi”
  1. David Grocott

    Great article. Brillitant achievement by Malawi. But, as you say, not easily replicable. Good to see the acknowledgement that the big difference this time round (2020 vs 2019) was the unity of the opposition. It’ll be interesting to see how the intra-coalition dynamics play out now – how long will Chilima be willing to play second fiddle to Chakwera for?

  2. nshilimubemba

    While that sounds true how ever Peter Mutarika came into power after defeating incumbent president Joyce Banda.
    To me I don’t think it is strange in Malawi to defeat the incumbent president.
    Even in Zambia the same is true , Kaunda lost to the opposing patty under FTJ.
    And again Sata defeated the incumbent RB Banda.
    I think the reality is if people want to change government they can do it, and especially if the incumbent president is corrupt .

    • The thing that made Malawi’s transition of government remarkable is that the previous government had been in power for more than 15 years. No one had thought that the government would be removed. In Joyce Banda’s case, her government had only been a replacement of the previous government after Bingu Mutharika had died. She did not win any election. She was there because she was the vice president. If you choose to argue further by bringing in Bakili Muluzi’s UDF and how they got booted out of government, the answer would also been quite the same. Mutharika came into power through the UDF and so left it after the elections and made the DPP. The point , however, remains the same. The government had been in power for too long and Malawians thought that each branch of government was under the DPP but in hindsight it was not. The independence of these institutions showed how democracy has matured through the checks and balances put in place over the course of 26 years after Malawi had been declared a democracy

  3. This analysis misses one important factor- the absence of the so-called international observers. For years, the so-called international observers have endorsed fraudulent elections in Malawi. This has been the case in almost all African elections. In 2019, the so-called international observers endorsed Mutharika’s ‘win’ – and Mutharika kept referring to their reports to justify that he had won “freely and squarely” (see;;

    In their book on how to rig an election, Nic Cheeseman and his colleague should add the ‘bribing and getting the endorsement of international observers’ (more research needed).
    The 2020 election in Malawi has demonstrated that the so-called international observers are not necessary as long as internal governance institutions/pillars of democracy work.

    • Owen Makaka

      This analysis misses the role of parliament in endorsing recommendations of the Constitutional Court e.g. 50%+1 decision rule, dissolution of the incompetent MEC, and setting the election date within the stipulated 150 days despite several attempts to frustrate the whole process by the Mutharika administration. This change is indeed superior and cannot, in any way, be compared to Mutharika’s 2014 rigged victory against Joyce Banda or the victories in the neighbouring Zambia. May God bless Malawi.

    • Henry

      I want to disagree that 2019 elections were rigged, its just a hypothesis which over a time people think when those in government have won elections then there was rigging. My proof is as follows: In 2019, Mutharika got 1.9 million and his party members were not harassed by the opposition. In 2020 he got away with 1.7 million with a loss of 200,000 votes from previous year. This reflects 10.5% loss and the president never campaigned in fear of Covid-19 till the last 4 days of the campaign. During the voting day, DPP has lost over 15 monitors who were abducted and more than 10 centres in the central region had no representation of DPP.
      In 2019, the opposition MCP and UTM (Chakwera & Chilima) got 1.7 and 1.0 million respectively and combining the votes is 2.7 million. In 2020 even with buoyancy of winning more than 5 Court cases all to do with election got 2.6 million with a loss of 100,000 representating 4% losses (this also involved other 7 small parties joining). If we consider all other hostile factors against DPP this year including the Catholic Church and Presbyterian Church of centre and northern Malawi campaigning against Mutharika and his DPP party, to be fair enough there wasn’t any rigging. If there was any, then the DPP Would not have gotten 90% of their votes of last year.

      • Jay Jay Gimmy

        No monitor is missing boss. Up to now the DPP has not filed any report to police about the missing monitors. They are just reporting it to social media. By the way DPP recruited ex-soldiers to be their election monitors who also were bribed with money to disrupt the elections. Lucky enough the ex -soldiers were apprehended by the milliatry. All election reaults forms from polling centers bear a signature of the legitimate monitors from all three parties that participated in the elections. Now we wonder what would have been the role of these so calles missing monitors and the retired soldiers if they had not been apprehended.

  4. Renate Kirsch

    Wonderful article, particular for portraying so skillfully the time dimension and institution building for achieving systemic change. Many, many thanks for writing and posting this valuable analysis. It will be shared widely 🙂

  5. Mathew

    This is a great article since it has tackled a content I expected to read. Someone has written that he disagreed the aspect that mentioned that 2019 elections were rigged, I do agree with the writer that 2019 elections were rigged. In 2019 I had a chat with someone whom I thought did not know much about elections, a young man who is in the field of building – a builder – and a neighbor. During one of our chats I tried to update him about the election court elections and this happened before February 2020 Constitutional Court ruling. My friend, the builder, surprised me when he cut me and told me that he believed that those elections were rigged and I asked him why do you say so. He told me that he happened to be a monitor for an independent candidate in Zomba and what happened after the voting shocked him. He narrated that after people had finished voting the presiding officer told him and other monitors that he had received an instruction that they must not start counting and he got an order to do so. The opposition monitors protested to him telling him that what he was doing was against what he was taught but he never listened and the security supported this idea. While they were waiting for the instruction a car came which brought a new presiding officer and the one whole during the day was taken by this car and people protested but the car left leaving the new presiding officer. When counting of the presidential votes there was chaos as the ballots counted could not be reconciled with what was counted. The other strange thing that happened was that the materials were left in classed and people were told to wait outside and no-one knew what was happened in the classrooms. Late at night when they failed to reconcile the figures they decided to take the un-reconciled documents to the constituency tally centre and at this point no-one accepted to sign the results as people wondered where the extra votes for DPP candidate came from. If you said there was no rigging what was this? You never change a presiding officer.