Democratization by Heart Attack? The Peculiar Case of Malawi

Malawi has a new president. Last week, President Bingu wa Mutharika of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) died unexpectedly of a heart attack. After two days of obfuscation and delay, the government finally lined up behind the constitution and accepted that Vice President Joyce Banda would succeed him. On Saturday, Banda was sworn in to office.

What makes Banda’s ascent to the presidency unusual is that it marked a transfer of power from ruling party to opposition in an authoritarian regime without an election or a rebellion. Banda had become vice president as Mutharika’s running mate in 2009, but she was expelled from the DPP in 2010 after a dispute with the president and recently said she had not spoken with Mutharika for more than a year.

Under these circumstances, Banda’s inauguration as president is remarkable. While the constitution is clear on the matter, the initial signals from the government were not promising. A strong press from Malawian activists probably discouraged the DPP from pursuing an extra-constitutional solution to its dilemma, and signals from foreign governments may have helped as well. Whatever the precise causes, though, I can’t think of another case like it. As Malawi researcher Kim Yi Dionne put it on Twitter, the DPP came into power without winning an election, and now it’s gone out of power without losing an election.

Until this strange succession, Malawi had followed a path of political development that’s typical for a relatively poor, post-colonial country. Malawi first transitioned to democracy in 1994, a year after crippling drought, a wave of anti-government protests, and the suspension of foreign aid spurred “president-for-life” Hastings Banda to convoke a national council that midwifed the birth of multiparty politics some thirty years after independence.

The survival of that democracy was in doubt as early as 2004, when Mutharika first won the presidency in elections tilted, according to E.U. observers, by the incumbent party’s flagrant abuse of state resources and intimidation of its rivals. Those flaws were repeated in the general elections of 2009, when Mutharika won a second term and his DPP solidified its hold on the legislature with a 113/193 majority.

Whatever doubts remained about the diminution of democracy in Malawi were erased in the past two years as President Mutharika openly threatened his partisan rivals and trampled civil liberties, one of the bright spots in election observers’ recent assessments. In July 2011, the government responded to anti-government protests over inflation and unemployment with a harsh crackdown that killed 19 and arrested nearly 300. Meanwhile, the government was engaging in a campaign of intimidation against journalists, activists, and its partisan rivals. When a leaked memo revealed that the British high commissioner had criticized Mutharika as “arrogant and intolerant of criticism,” Mutharika had the high commissioner deported.

By my standards, democracy won’t really be restored in Malawi unless and until the country holds new, free, and fair elections. As it stands, both the new chief executive and the DPP’s parliamentary majority won office on a tilted playing field.

Still, the initial signals are promising. So far, President Banda has sacked the police chief linked to the lethal repression of July 2011; opened an investigation into the death of a prominent anti-government activist; and fired top government officials suspected of trying to block her ascension to the presidency over the weekend. Meanwhile, a coalition of leading civil-society groups is keeping the pressure on with a statement on the political transition that cautions President Banda against seeking revenge on her DPP rivals, calls for reforms in election administration and the police, and casts a jaundiced eye on a rush of defections by legislators from the DPP to Banda’s People’s Party.

As promising as those developments are, Malawi’s next elections aren’t due until 2014, and two years is a long time. I wonder: Is Banda really trying to dismantle autocracy, or is she just trying to tilt the power balance in favor of her own faction? Whichever is true, how will entrenched interests respond? If the history of democratization teaches us anything, it’s that these victories are often fleeting, and the work of defending them never ends.

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