Muluzi was second-in-command in the Banda government and secretary general of the MCP for nine years. He left the cabinet in 1982, having lost the support of Banda. From 1982 to 1992, Muluzi supported the opposition by heading the UDF, which at that time was a pressure group agitating for a multiparty system.
When the UDF became a political party in 1992, Muluzi was a founding member. The one-party system was abolished in 1993, and Muluzi began to prepare the UDF for parliamentary and presidential elections. He ran on a platform of reforming the Malawian political system by embracing democracy and alleviating poverty and illiteracy through increased social services.
Muluzi became president on 21 May 1994, having defeated Hastings Banda (MCP) and Chakufwa Chihana (AFORD) by obtaining 47.3% of the total vote. Banda, the runner-up and former president, received 33.6%. Despite having participated in the Banda government and having been accused of embezzling funds in 1968 as court clerk, Muluzi ran a campaign advocating change as an outsider. Most of Muluzi's support came from the south while the north strongly opposed him. He formed a coalition government with AFORD to obtain a governing majority in the National Assembly.