Electoral Cycle Support in Malawi

By Sophie Pollak Post date: Mar 13, 2018


After introducing a multi-party democracy in 1994, Malawi has experienced a turbulent path to democracy plagued by 20 years of volatile elections and corruption. To combat a lack of election credibility, the project supported the Malawi Election Commission (MEC) to conduct genuine elections through “the delivery of technical assistance and the international procurement of essential materials, and provided a UNDP Basket Fund” to coordinate financial support from different Development Partners. After the election, the project facilitated the development of institutions and transitioning the technical capacity for MEC to implement elections in the future without assistance. To fund the project, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) assembled a basket fund compiled from various foreign donors including Irish Aid and the Department for International Development – United Kingdom. 

The 2014 election results had a few challenges, mainly concerning the possibility of election rigging and voting irregularities. However, these were deemed negligible by foreign election monitors.  Like any new system, this was the first election that utilized the new technology apparatus and the process is only expected to increase in success and mitigate the potential for future inconsistencies. After the election, the MEC “harmonized and stabilized the electoral policy and regulatory environment, strengthened their technical and institutional capacity,” and enhanced the election process.

Key Findings and Lessons Learned 

   - Elections need to be more closely monitored in the future to mitigate any voting irregularities and ‘vote rigging’ that occurred.
   - Government turmoil and corruption that occurred leading up to the 2014 election illustrates a need for further regulatory and
     anti-corruption measures to be put in place.
   - Need to continue to implement programs to encourage minority civic participation in elections.
   - Steps must be taken to assure the government of monitoring and regulatory measures without compromising the integrity of the
   - Steps must be taken to ensure the continuous flow of technical assistance and the procurement of election materials.
   - Crucial to have an educated and informed populace to increase voter turnout
   - Peer education may be an effective method to expand the program into all regions of the country.
   - Challenges included financial constraints put in place by the government for the MEC and further steps are needed to combat the
     potential to shrink the budget and relapse into a non-democratic regime.
   - MEC should not have released the 2014 elections results until results were confirmed. Measures have been put in place to ensure
     this will not occur in the future.
   - Feasibility of the ability of MEC to conduct the technical requirements of an election without outside support needs to be further
     developed. Transitional plan may need to be put in place.
   - Importance of a responsive and knowledgeable board to resolve discrepancies in the candidate nomination process to avoid the
     appeal process.

Background and Context

Malawi became an independent nation in 1964. For 30 years, the country fell under an “authoritarian and quixotic” ruler, President Hastings Kamuzu Banda until a multiparty election was held in 1994. Under Banda’s rule, Malawi was actually able to prosper economically despite being one of the most repressive and corrupt regimes in Africa. He improved the infrastructure, advocated women’s rights, and received support from the West. Banda had no tolerance for opposition and his government was known for torturing and murdering the opposition. In 1992, a group of Malawian Catholic bishops crafted a letter about the “poor state of human rights, poverty, and their effects on family life” in Malawi. This letter served as the catalyst to spur the creation of opposition parties. The two parties created were the Alliance for Democracy and the United Democratic Front (UDF). In response to its creation, the Banda regime agreed to hold a national referendum and in 1994, Bakili Muluzi was elected.

In 1995, a new constitution was created that created the framework for the necessary structures and institutions to transform Malawi into a democratic society. Muluzi pursued instituting basic freedoms and rooting out corruption. At the time, Malawi also faced high poverty rates and widespread food shortages. However, the tumultuous history of Malawi’s governance continued when the results of the Muluzi’s 1999 re-election were challenged. It resulted in protests and violence, which continued to plague Muluzi’s second term along with added international criticism. 

The 2004 election resulted in the election of Bingu wa Mutharika of the UDF. Even though he was selected by Muluzi and the election was “tainted by irregularity and criticized as unfair, Mutharika managed to restore foreign aid to the country by cracking down on corruption. This was done in part by separating himself from Muluzi and the UDF, and creating the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Muluzi was not pleased with this separation and led to him wanting to run again for president. However, the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) deemed him ineligible and Mutharika was reelected in 2009. “Economic mismanagement and poor governance” plagued his second term. In 2012, Mutharika died of a heart attack and left behind a country filled with political discontent, rising food prices, fuel shortages, a power crisis, and uncertainty. Additionally, Malawi faced a suspension in aid from Britain and the United States over governance concerns. Vice president, Joyce Banda, as mandated by the constitution, succeeded him. She was able to restore diplomatic relations, fight corruption, and begin to fix the economy. Unfortunately, a majority of the population still was living in poverty. 

The aforementioned political background information serves to illustrate the turbulent transitional periods of elections in Malawi. The Malawian government faced major problems concerning “population growth, increasing pressure on agricultural lands, corruption,” and an increase in the number of of HIV/AIDS cases. This turbulence spurred the need for the Electoral Cycle Support project, especially with the problems facing the Malawian government. 

Since the project began in June of 2013 in preparation for the 2014 election, a lot of chaos has occurred in Malawi. Banda dissolved her cabinet in October 2013 after what was coined the “cash gate” scandal, which continued to plague the 2014 campaign. Banda attempted to annul the election when it appeared that she would not win the election, but this action was denied. The MEC “indicated the need to conduct a recount after discovering some voting anomalies.” Such anomalies included voting irregularities and vote rigging, despite being deemed by outside election observers as being “generally credible.” The election resulted in the election of Peter Murtharika.

Implementing Actors and Institutions

Voters and Politicians: Both are critical actors that are involved in the political process and thus, the implementation process. Implementation would not be possible if the citizens did not go out and vote in the elections. It is also crucial to promote civic education and responsibility to deter citizens from taking part in undermining the election process. 

Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC): Conduct the election in 2014 and future elections. Gain necessary technology to conduct elections without assistance. 

Government of Malawi: Provides funding in the form of a basket fund to support elections.

United Nations Development Program (UNDP): Provides election support. The goal is to contribute to “national development through the promotion of democracy, strengthening and promoting respect for all international recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms including the right to development with support provided to projects that enhance participatory democracy,” promote civic responsibility, and support credible elections. Manages the basket fund.

Development Partners: Serves as sources of funding and technical expertise. 

   - Irish Aid – Partners with UNDP and the Malawi government to support democratic governance. Since Malawi is a relatively young
     democracy, it is critical that Malawians are engaged in the “electoral and decision making processes that affect their lives.” Irish
     Aid is a strong supporter of an anti-corruption strategy and helping to advocate for improved nutrition.

   - Department for International Development – United Kingdom (DFID – UK) – Partners with UNDP and the Malawi government to
     increase living conditions in Malawi and to drive reform. Important to note a large stake in Malawi is due to the UK’s large stake in
     Tanzania and an instable Malawi is a threat to Tanzania.

Detail of Program

The Malawi Electoral Cycle Support Project is designed to support and strengthen the capacities of the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) “to plan, conduct and supervise credible and genuine elections in 2014.” The Electoral Cycle Support Project will support the MEC to promote inclusivity and informed civic participation among all electoral stakeholders. These stakeholders include voters, political candidates, and the media. Within these stakeholders it is crucial to promote civic participation and engagement among minorities including youth, women, disabled peoples, etc. Also, in Malawi, it is critical to increase the level of civic education in the populace. Furthermore, the project supports “technical and institutional capacity” of the MEC “to conduct future elections with minimal or no external technical support.” The technical support consisted of technology to plan the operations and logistics, manage complaints and procurement of necessary polling items. 

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) is the support foundation for the project. The UNDP established a multi-donor election fund to help facilitate in guaranteeing a genuine and credible election in Malawi. The project began in June 2013 and ended in December of 2015 with goal of having the MEC continue to sustain electoral reform in future phases. The events that played out surrounding “cash gate” and the campaign of 2014 further supported the necessity to maintain the project to carry out a credible election.  Additionally, the goal of the UNDP was not just to establish credible elections in 2014 and support the MEC, but to also establish credible elections in the future and to facilitate institutional development and electoral reform.  

The total budget for the project is 44.4 million USD. Development partners provided 60% of the funds and the government, via a basket fund managed by the UNDP, provided the other 40% of the funds.


This project did well when it came to achieving their overall objective, which was to support the MEC to conduct a genuine and credible election in 2014. However, since it was the first election under the project, it did not go perfectly, which is completely expected. It is challenging to mobilize a populace to go vote when they are accustomed to a corrupt government, which spills over into the electoral process. A way to combat this would be to create a program that would empower minorities to vote. Such a program would involve educating women and young adults on democratic practices, encourage political participation, and promote civic responsibility. A key component of this program would be the ability for participants to educate their peers and their communities about the fundamentals of civic duties and democratic principles to assist in the spreading of these ideas throughout Malawi.