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Coalition Building and Electoral Alternation in Malawi

Hangala Siachiwena, University of Cape Town


Proponents of democracy in Africa postulate that alternation in power between political parties and leaders increases the capacity for citizens to hold their leaders accountable (Carbone and Pellegata, 2017: 1). Yet, electoral alternation in Africa remains rare. Between 1990 and 2019, incumbent leaders won almost 90% of all executive elections held on the continent (Cheeseman, 2010; Bleck and van de Walle, 2019). Incumbent leaders have an arsenal of techniques that they use to guarantee their re-election which includes gerrymandering, corruption, coercion, and electoral fraud (Cheeseman, 2015: 146). These techniques allow incumbents to subvert the electoral playing field and to create disparities between ruling parties and the opposition in terms of access to resources, public media, and the law (Levitsky and Way, 2010: 58).


The high rate of incumbent wins has coincided with a global decline in democratic regime attributes (Lührmann and Lindberg, 2019). It was reported in 2020 that 34% of the world’s population was affected by a wave of autocratization (Hellemeier et al., 2021). On average, the level of democracy enjoyed by the global citizen in 2020 was down to levels last witnessed in 1990 (V-Dem Institute, 2021). Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the African continent reported similarly significant declines in freedom, the state of democracy, and quality of elections in 2020 (Repucci and Slipowitz, 2021). Incumbent governments used COVID-19 restrictions to hinder voter registration and to repress opposition campaign programmes (ibid: 25). Elections held in Tanzania, Central African Republic, and Togo – which were all won by incumbents – were characterized by government repression, violence, and accusations of fraud (ibid). Presidents Alassane Ouattara of Cote D’Ivoire and Alpha Condé of Guinea also won unconstitutional third terms.

Malawi stands out for being one of only two countries – alongside Seychelles – that experienced alternation in power, out of 11 elections held for president on the continent in 2020 (Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, 2022). Malawi had held regular elections in May 2019 that were won by President Peter Mutharika of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The election results were petitioned by opposition parties – that cited fraud and other irregularities in the vote counting process – and nullified by the High Court (Siachiwena and Saunders, 2021). Mutharika and the DPP lost the ensuing fresh election that was held in June 2020.


This essay asks what explains electoral alternation in Malawi amidst global democratic decline. It argues that the formation of a multi-ethnic and multi-regional coalition involving the two largest opposition parties galvanized popular support amongst citizens who were dissatisfied with the economic performance of the incumbent president and governing political party. The formation of an opposition coalition in 2020 allowed the leading opposition presidential candidates – Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and Saulos Chilima of the United Transformation Movement (UTM) – to unite their political and regional bases under one platform. This essay argues that alternation of power to the opposition would not have happened in the absence of a coalition for three reasons. Firstly, data from an Afrobarometer survey conducted in late 2019 show that the DPP and MCP were in a ‘dead heat’ with similar levels of support (Dulani and Chunga, 2020: 2). Secondly, the MCP and UTM contested the 2019 elections as separate political parties but neither of them had more support than the DPP. Finally, the rules for determining a majority were changed by the High Court ahead of the 2020 poll, which required a winner to obtain more than 50% of the vote. These factors provided incentives for political parties to form election coalitions which had implications for the results and electoral alternation in Malawi.


The rest of this essay proceeds as follows. First, it provides a background of the 2019 and 2020 elections and discusses the results of each contest. The essay then turns to Afrobarometer survey data to understand the attitudes of Malawian citizens towards aspects of economic performance and the leading political parties ahead of the June 2020 elections. Thereafter, the essay discusses the significance of an opposition coalition for understanding Malawi’s electoral alternation. Finally, the essay concludes by demonstrating the implications of opposition coalition building and electoral alternation for democracy and elections in Africa.


Malawi’s 2019 and 2020 elections

Malawi transitioned from one party rule to a multiparty democracy in the early 1990s and held its sixth multiparty elections in May 2019. The 2019 presidential election was won by the incumbent president, Peter Mutharika of the DPP, who obtained 38% of the vote (Dionne and Dulani, 2020). He was followed closely by Lazarus Chakwera of the MCP who garnered 35% (ibid). Mutharika’s immediate former vice president, Saulos Chilima of the UTM, was third with 20% (ibid). Chakwera and Chilima petitioned the election results in the High Court, citing various irregularities in the management of the elections (Chirwa et al, 2020: 410). The country was also engulfed with a series of protests led by a civic organization, the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC), which demanded the nullification of the election and resignation of the head of the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) for mismanaging the election (Chunga, 2020: 1). Thousands of Malawian citizens participated in the protests that were held in the country’s largest cities for several months. Afrobarometer survey data revealed that 53% of Malawians agreed with the key demands of the protests (ibid: 2). In February 2020, the High Court nullified the May 2019 presidential election and ordered a fresh poll within 150 days from the date of the ruling (Dulani and Chunga, 2020: 1). In a 500-page ruling, the court found that there were widespread irregularities in the 2019 poll which included the use of Tippex correction fluid to change results (Siachiwena and Saunders, 2021: 83). The outcome was an especially unusual thing for the High Court to do given that they had never nullified a presidential election before. The extent of irregularities (including the alternation of results with Tippex) was cited as the main reason for the nullification. It is also likely that sustained protests from citizens contributed to the High Court’s ruling. Although the DPP and the MEC appealed the ruling in the Supreme Court, the apex court upheld the ruling, also citing widespread irregularities in the management of elections.


The MEC set June 23 as the date for a fresh presidential election (Chirwa et al., 2020: 411). While the 2019 election was held under the firstpast-the-post (FPTP) voting system, the High Court ordered that the 2020 election would be held under a 50% plus 1 majority electoral system, which the court argued was the correct method for determining an electoral majority according to the Malawian Constitution (Siachiwena and Saunders, 2021: 83). Given that neither of the leading political parties had come close to obtaining 50% of the vote in 2019, the parties and their candidates recognized the importance of forming electoral coalitions to bolster their chances of securing electoral victory.


The DPP formed its alliance with the opposition United Democratic Front (UDF), which had been the party in government from 1994 to 2005. Meanwhile, the MCP and UTM formed an alliance known as ‘Tonse’ which means ‘together’ in the Chewa language. The June 2020 elections were therefore held under new MEC leadership and a new threshold for determining a majority. The MEC declared Chakwera of the Tonse Alliance the winner with 59% of the vote (Siachiwena and Saunders, 2021: 84), which met the 50% plus 1 threshold and averted a run-off. This series of events made Malawi only the second African country to have a court nullify a presidential election won by an incumbent, after Kenya in 2017, and the first to witness a transition to the opposition after a fresh election. It was also only one of two countries on the continent where alternation in power occurred in 2020. What dynamics help to explain this rare case of electoral alternation?


Survey evidence

Prior to the June 2020 contest, an Afrobarometer survey was conducted that showed that most Malawian citizens were dissatisfied with various aspects of government economic performance. Most citizens also reported low levels of trust and support in the president. The data further show that neither of the opposition parties commanded sufficient support to unseat the DPP in the absence of a coalition. This section reports descriptive statistics from the survey to demonstrate the extent of support that each party had. This also helps to explain why both the ruling party and the opposition formed coalitions ahead of the fresh poll.


The Afrobarometer Network conducted its eighth Malawian survey in November and December 2019. It was conducted 6 months after the May 2019 elections and at least six months before the June 2020 poll. The survey was based on interviews with 1,200 adult Malawians. This sample size yields country-level results with a margin of error of +/-3 percentage points at a 95% confidence level.


The Afrobarometer survey includes several questions that ask citizens about their perceptions of aspects related to development and democracy.

Table 1 reports the percentage of citizens who held positive assessments of various issues that measure the performance of the president and government. It also reports the percentage of the survey population that had high levels of trust in the president, the ruling party, and the opposition.


Afrobarometer computes a lived poverty index (LPI), on a four-point scale from 0 to 4, which measures the frequency with which citizens in a country went without access to five basic necessities in the previous year. The five necessities are food to eat, clean water for home use, medical treatment, fuel to cook food and, a cash income. The LPI provides an average score based on each respondent’s response to the five questions. Table 1 reports results of citizens who reported high levels of lived poverty in 2019, measured as those who scored an average of more than 2. The results show that at least six months before the June 2020 election, nearly three-quarters of Malawian citizens (71%), reported high levels of lived poverty.


It is not surprising, therefore, that most Malawians also had negative evaluations about the president and ruling party. Only 40% of all surveyed citizens approved or strongly approved the performance of the president. About a quarter (24%) believed the government was managing the economy well or very well. Further, roughly 1 in 10 respondents (13%) reported that Malawi’s present economic conditions were fairly good or very good. It is also notable that the percentage of respondents that had high levels of trust in the president and the opposition was similar, at 43%. The levels of trust in the ruling party were slightly lower, at 40%.

What emerges from these data is that the president and the leading opposition party enjoyed similar levels of trust despite most citizens reporting negative assessments about the president and ruling party. A further analysis of the survey data reveals that regional dynamics were crucial for both ruling party and opposition support. Afrobarometer surveys ask the question: “If national elections were held tomorrow, which party would you vote for?” Figure 1 reports the results for parties that received 1% or more of the intended vote choice. It also reports the results of citizens who intended to vote for other parties and those who did not declare their voting intentions i.e., those who would not vote, did not know who they would vote for, or refused to indicate which party they would vote for.


Figure 1 shows that 32% of Malawians in the survey indicated that they would vote for the then ruling DPP if an election were held the following day. This was only 1% percentage point more than respondents (at 31%) who indicated that they would vote for the official opposition, the MCP. Thirteen percent indicated that they would vote for the third largest party, the UTM, while 2% would vote for the fourth largest party, the UDF. However, about a fifth of respondents (22%) did not declare their voting intentions while less than 1% reported intentions to vote for other smaller political parties.

It is evident from the data that no party could meet the 50% plus 1 threshold to obtain a majority under the new electoral system. However, as Figure 2 shows, the four parties that garnered more than 1% of support amongst prospective Malawian voters, each commanded regional support. This support was crucial for coalition building and determining which presidential candidate could win a majority.

Historically, elections in Malawi have been characterized by regional bloc voting patterns. In the first democratic elections (after one-party rule) held in 1994, voters in each of Malawi’s three administrative regions, bloc voted for a candidate who originated from that region (Kaspin, 1995: 595). The trend has repeated itself in subsequent elections, except for 2009 when former president, Bingu wa Mutharika, won with 66% in the presidential vote. The Afrobarometer survey data show that the DPP which was led by a Southerner, was the most popular party in terms of intended vote choice in the South, with 59%. By contrast, less than 15% of respondents in the North or Center indicated intentions to vote for the DPP. The UDF which was also led by a Southerner – Atupele Muluzi – recorded 4% of the intended vote choice in the South, and 0% in both the North and Center. The coalition between Mutharika’s DPP and Muluzi’s UDF, was therefore limited to support in the South.


The MCP received 54% of support amongst survey respondents in the Center, which is the home region of the party’s president. The party also received 45% support in the North but only 4% in the South. The UTM’s Chilima recorded 33% of the intended vote choice in the North. Support for UTM was much smaller in the Center and South, with only 11% and 8% respectively, in terms of voting intentions. These results demonstrate that the coalition between MCP and UTM had broader regional appeal than that of the DPP and UDF.


Significance of the opposition coalition

Across much of Sub-Saharan Africa, political parties have often been associated with representing the interests of specific ethnic groups – usually the co-ethnics of a party leader – at the expense of programmatic content (Arriola, 2012). Malawi has frequently been described as a country whose politics is defined by ethnicity or regional voting patterns (Kaspin, 1995). Arriola (2012) observed that incumbent African parties routinely retained power because the opposition was often fragmented along ethnic or regional lines and failed to unite against incumbents that enjoyed various advantages.


While Afrobarometer evidence suggests that regionalism is important for explaining support for leading political parties ahead of Malawi’s 2020 election, regional voting is not sufficient to explain why electoral alternation occurred. The nullification of the 2019 election by the High Court and the determination that an electoral majority must be defined as obtaining 50% plus 1 of all votes, created an incentive for political parties to form coalitions to contest the 2020 poll. In the 2020 contest, the MCP and UTM therefore formed a coalition that galvanized support in the North and Center. While perceptions of Mutharika and the DPP’s handling of the economy were low, the party enjoyed significant regional support in the South which contributed to its electoral success in 2019 under the FPTP voting system. This shows that neither regional support nor performance evaluations were sufficient for electoral alternation. What mattered was the ability for political parties to establish multi-regional coalitions led by popular candidates with support from more than one administrative region – and the incentive for them to do so created by the new requirement for a 50% plus one majority.


The African continent experienced a democratic wave in the early 1990s but that has not translated into democratic consolidation (Bleck and van de Walle, 2019). Incumbents have a range of techniques at their disposal that allow them to win most elections. This has contributed to a general decline in democracy regionally and globally. This was notable in 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, when several countries on the continent faced democratic challenges including elections that were neither free nor fair. Malawi provides a unique case of a country that had elections nullified in 2019 because of irregularities only for an opposition coalition to win a fresh election more than a year later. Malawi’s 2020 election demonstrates that there are possibilities for electoral alternation on the continent despite recent trends, and that changes in the design of elections can encourage such outcomes. Alternation between political parties is crucial for democracy as it increases the ability for citizens to hold their leaders accountable.


This research essay also shows that democratic institutions such as courts have important roles to play in safeguarding African democracy. The High Court’s interpretation of majority to mean 50% plus 1 vote, prompted leading political parties and their presidential candidates to form coalitions. The creation of the Tonse Alliance mobilized support across political party and regional lines which was sufficient to dislodge the DPP from power. This further demonstrates the importance of opposition coalition building especially in multiethnic societies characterized by regional bloc voting patterns. In the absence of such coalitions, incumbents have a high likelihood of retaining power even when their performance in handling the economy does not meet the expectations of most citizens. Moreover, parties that form government with only a plurality of the vote, have an incentive to govern in the interests of ethnic groups or regions that brought them to power, at the expense of the majority of citizens who expect policy adjustments that address broader national concerns.

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