Malawi’s first-ever multiparty elections, held on 17 May 1994, represented a new beginning for the people of Malawi and the closing of a long chapter in Africa’s political history. The unseating of President Hastings Kamuzu Banda and his Malawi Congress Party (MCP) brought the departure from politics of Africa’s last prominent independence-era dictator and the demise of one of the last remaining one-party regimes in the region. It also marked the culmination of two years of remarkable political changes that transformed Malawi from one of the most closed and repressive countries in Africa to one that holds promise of becoming among the continent’s most open and liberal.
Having paved the way for the elections by voting in a June 1993 referendum to scrap the 27-year-old ban on multiparty political competition, Malawians elected Bakili Muluzi, a Muslim businessman from the southern region, as their country’s new president. Muluzi won 47.2 percent of the vote in a three-way race contested by President Banda and trade unionist Chakufwa Chihana, who obtained 33.5 percent and 18.9 percent of the vote, respectively. In the simultaneously held parliamentary elections, run on a plurality basis in single-member constituencies, the three major parties won seats in roughly the same ratio as their presidential standard-bearers. Muluzi’s United Democratic Front (UDF) secured 85 of the 177 seats, Banda’s MCP won 56, and Chihana’s Alliance for Democracy (AFORD) captured 36. 1
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The most outstanding feature of the election, apart from its orderliness, was the clear regional basis of the voting patterns (see map). AFORD, which captured every parliamentary seat in the northern region, [End Page 131] was able to win only three seats outside of it—all in constituencies adjacent to the border between the northern and central regions. The UDF completely dominated the south, winning 71 of the 74 constituencies in that region. The UDF also managed to win 14 seats in the central region, all clustered along the central-southern border, along the shore of Lake Malawi (where the country’s Muslim population is concentrated), and in the urban areas of the capital, Lilongwe (where the party’s business ties were attractive). The locus of MCP support was in the central region (Banda’s home region), where the party won 51 of the 68 available seats. The only constituencies the MCP was able to capture outside of the central region were in the far southern tip of the country, the home area of its popular secretary general, Gwanda Chakuamba. An identical pattern of regional polarization obtained in the presidential election. 2 While Muluzi’s relative success in courting voters outside of the south played some role in accounting for his victory, the outcome of the presidential poll was, more than anything else, a function of demographics. Fifty percent of Malawi’s nine million people live in the south. Muluzi won the election because he was the candidate from the region with the highest percentage of eligible voters in a contest where people voted overwhelmingly for their own coregionalists.
What explains this pattern of regional voting? Malawi is a country of great ethnic heterogeneity. 3 Yet it is also a country in which very different historical patterns of missionary activity, educational development, migration, and agricultural policy in the three regions have led to a privileging of regional identities over more localized ethnic ties. In the north, a combination of widespread missionary education in the Tumbuka language and a shared dependence on labor migrancy for cash income during the colonial era shaped a set of common interests revolving around promoting opportunities for educated Africans and reinforcing social institutions capable of maintaining migrant workers’ [End Page 132] ties to land and family. Out of these common interests a single regional identity was forged among the disparate groups occupying the area. The people of central Malawi, who were relatively homogeneous culturally and linguistically to begin with, were unified during the colonial period by a shared interest in agricultural policies supportive of small-holder tobacco...