What is worth discussing a little further is the means through which Mutharika secured that victory. While ethnicity has never been as salient an issue in Malawi as many other SSA countries, its politics have long been dominated by regional `super-ethnic’ voting. It used to be the case that one of the easiest ways to know how someone was going to vote was to know whether they were from the Northern, Central, or Southern regions of the country
When I lived in Malawi, one of my night watchmen (who was from the Central region) expressed a deep affinity for John Tembo, the current political leader of the Malawi Congress Party, former right-hand man of the deceased dictator Hastings Banda. Tembo was a wicked thug during Banda’s time, yet my night watchman’s support was unwavering: “He is my uncle”, he affectionately put it, expressing regional solidarity.
Shortly after winning his first election on a United Democratic Front (UDF) ticket, Bingu wa Mutharika created the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). This was in early 2005, a time when politics was still marked by regionalism. Shortly after, an Afrobarometer survey was conducted in the country (see below), confirming the regional bias: voters preferred the DPP in the north, the MCP in the Center, and the UDF in the south.
But between the 2005 Afrobarometer survey and the 2009 elections, something shifted in the way the population expressed political support: the DPP and Mutharika managed incredible gains across all regions (see this Afrobarometer paper for more info about the shift in voting habits). This table from the report sums up this shift in support: