The trading kingdoms established in the Malawi region during the 1500s endured until British traders arrived in the area in 1859. In 1891, Malawi became the British protectorate of Nyasaland. In 1953, Nyasaland joined with Northern and Southern Rhodesia to form the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Internal opposition, however, led by nationalist leaders, including Hastings Kamuzu Banda, forced the dissolution of federation in 1963 and the establishment of the independent nation of Malawi in July 1964.
Declared a republic in 1966, Malawi was governed as a one-party state under President Banda until 1994. The Malawi Congress Party (MCP), formed by Banda, governed the country through coercion and repression. In 1971, Banda was declared president-for-life. He once said, "One leader, one party, one government and no nonsense about it." Malawi entered a period of political stability and repression, with many dissidents fleeing the secret police and the paramilitary militia, Malawi Young Pioneers of the MCP. Significant support for Banda came from owners of large agricultural estates and agricultural processors who benefited from low state prices. Peasant farmers, who were unable to subsist on the land became expatriate laborers in South Africa and other African countries. By 1985, 86% of rural households farmed less than 5% of the land.
By 1992, significant pressures for democratization and an end to repression came from the international aid community. The Catholic Church criticized the repressive government in an open letter. Despite the affirmation of one-party rule by the National Assembly, mass protests took place in May 1992, one month before another uncontested election. Banda, realizing his decreasing popularity and declining health, called for a national referendum on one-party rule. On 15 June 1993, 63.5% of Malawians who cast their ballot voted in favor of ending one-party rule.
On 22 July 1993, the National Assembly reformed the Constitution by repealing articles that called for a one-party state and declared an amnesty for political exiles. Two months later, Banda underwent brain surgery. A provisional government, consisting of a three member Presidential Council, began preparations for multiparty elections despite protest from opposition leaders, who preferred a transition led by a neutral team. In November, the National Assembly voted to end Banda's lifetime appointment. Presidential elections held on 17 May 1994 featured four candidates, including Banda. The winner was Bakili Muluzi of the United Democratic Front (UDF). Muluzi assumed the presidency and was subsequently reelected in June 1999.
Malawi has now become a multiparty democracy. The 192 members of the National Assembly are elected in single-member districts along with the president, who is elected nationally. All serve five year terms. The three major political parties are the UDF, the MCP, and the Alliance for Democracy (AFORD). The cabinet and the vice president assist the president in the day-to-day operations of the country. In addition to the national government, there are 24 local government districts and three subdistricts.
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