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 opposition groups had questioned the impartiality and legitimacy of the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) in previous years, key observers concluded that it operated with sufficient transparency during the 2009 elections. Some concerns have arisen over delays in holding local government elections, which have not been held since district-level assemblies were dissolved in 2005. In apparent contravention of a court order, the president suspended and closed the MEC in December 2010 after an audit report revealed that large sums of money allocated to run the 2009 elections remained unaccounted for.
The main political parties are the ruling DPP, the opposition MCP, and the UDF. The opposition was able to organize and campaign freely during the 2009 elections. In 2010, the efficacy of these parties was undermined by infighting, largely over leadership issues.
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. The new National Anti-Corruption Strategy launched in 2009 includes a plan to establish “integrity committees” in public institutions. However, a February 2010 report by Global Integrity indicated that the Anti-Corruption Bureau has largely focused on low-level civil servants while avoiding high-ranking officials under political pressure. After years of investigation and two prior arrests, former president Bakili Muluzi was arrested 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 end of 2010. Other figures investigated or questioned during the year included former cabinet ministers (who lost positions in a cabinet shuffle in August 2010) and the highly regarded former ombudsman. In January, Malawi’s former postmaster general was convicted on corruption charges. Malawi was ranked 85 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 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 approximately 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 election observers. Independent broadcast outlets are playing an increasingly important role, though broadcast and print media have been the target of government harassment. In January 2010, the government placed a ban on advertising at the largest independent daily in response to unflattering articles about the president’s family; the ban continued through year’s end. In June, the government directed private media to stop providing live coverage of certain VIP functions. In August, Mutharika threatened to close down newspapers that had reported on potential food insecurity in the country, an act which led to instances of media self-censorship. Meanwhile, the courts halted a government attempt to ban a weekly publication in November.
Religious freedom is generally respected, and the government does not restrict academic freedom.
While the government has generally upheld freedoms of assembly and association, these rights have come under pressure in recent years. In August 2010, three members of the clergy were charged with treason for criticizing the government during a funeral; their trial remained ongoing at year’s end. Leaders of a nongovernmental organization (NGO) were arrested in February for inciting violence after they criticized the distribution of government development funds. Many NGOs and the constitutionally-mandated Malawi Human Rights Commission operate, though with some government 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. There were no recorded instances of harassment of judges for political reasons in 2010, and the courts rendered several significant decisions against the government, including a supreme court decision that reversed government efforts to change rules for selecting the leader of the opposition in parliament, and a high court decision that halted the government from banning a newspaper. However, 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 respects private property and has generally embraced free-market principles. However, President Mutharika has displayed a willingness to intervene in economic life. In August 2010, the president banned the exportation of cotton so that processing of the crop could be undertaken domestically.
Malawi faced international attention and outcry in December 2009 when a gay couple who had become engaged through a traditional ceremony was charged with gross public indecency. In May 2010, the couple was found guilty of engaging in unnatural acts, among other violations, and was sentenced to fourteen years in prison. However, they were pardoned by President Mutharika later that same month.
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. However, 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.
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. In June 2010, the parliament passed the Child Care, Protection, and Justice Bill, which attempts to address these and other threats to children. Among other things, the new law specifically details the responsibilities of parents on raising and protecting their children and outlines the duties of local authorities to protect children from harmful, exploitative, or undesirable practices.