The present constitution was approved by the National Assembly in May 1994 and promulgated in May 1995. It provides for a multiparty democracy on the US model. It curtails the former sweeping and absolute powers of the President, contains a bill of human rights (although it retains the death penalty) and protects the independence of the judiciary.
The head of state is an executive President, who is elected every five years for a maximum of two terms by direct universal suffrage. The President is also head of the cabinet, whose maximum size is 24 members. Legislative authority is vested in the unicameral National Assembly, whose 193 members are directly elected for a five-year term by universal adult suffrage.
The Senate was scheduled to follow the local elections that were eventually held in November 2000, but in January 2001 the National Assembly approved a constitutional amendment that removed the provision for a Senate.
Speculation that President Bakili Muluzi would decide to stand for a third term at the 2004 election, requiring an amendment to the constitution, ended in July 2002, after a narrow majority of parliamentarians had voted against such an amendment. Then in April 2003 Dr Bingu wa Mutharika was confirmed as the presidential candidate of the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF). Muluzi appointed four Alliance for Democracy (AFORD) members as cabinet ministers and AFORD agreed to support the UDF candidate at the next election.
In a close contest in May 2004, Mutharika (UDF) won the presidential election with 35.9 per cent, John Tembo of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) coming second with 27.1 per cent and Gwanda Chakuamba (Mgwirizano Coalition) third with 25.7 per cent. In the simultaneous parliamentary elections MCP took 56 seats, UDF 49, Mgwirizano Coalition 25, UDF’s ally AFORD six and independents 39. Though both the ruling UDF coalition and the MCP claimed to have won presidential and parliamentary elections, Mutharika was sworn in as President and formed a government while the opposition mounted violent protests. In the succeeding weeks the President secured the support of first Chakuamba and then the National Democratic Alliance. However, in February 2005, with the support of majority of his cabinet, Chakuamba and a number of MPs, he left the UDF to form a new party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
In the presidential election in May 2009, Mutharika received 66 per cent of votes, a substantially higher share than in 2004. His main challenger, MCP leader Tembo, took 31 per cent. In the parliamentary elections, the ruling DPP won 113 seats, the MCP 27, the UDF 17 and independents 33. Before the elections former President Muluzi made a further attempt to run for the presidency. The electoral commission ruled that he was not eligible because he had already served two terms, the maximum allowed by the constitution. Muluzi appealed this decision in the High Court, which upheld the electoral commission’s ruling. He later made an appeal to the Constitutional Court, which also upheld the ruling.
Following the sudden death of President Bingu wa Mutharika on 5 April 2012, Vice-President Joyce Banda was sworn in as President on 7 April.
In a closely fought presidential contest, on 20 May 2014, the DPP candidate, Peter Mutharika, secured 36.4 per cent of the vote defeating the MCP’s Lazarus Chakwera (27.8 per cent) and incumbent President and People’s Party leader Joyce Banda (20.2 per cent). Mutharika was sworn in as President on 31 May 2014. The Commonwealth observer group that was present at the election said that ‘for the most part, voting was conducted in a peaceful, orderly and transparent manner’ and that ‘the polling environment was generally conducive to the free expression of will by the electorate’.
In the concurrent parliamentary elections 52 seats were secured by independents, 50 by the DPP, 48 by the MCP, 26 by the People’s Party and 14 by the UDF.