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Who is Malawi's new leader Lazarus Chakwera?

June 27, 2020

Lazarus Chakwera has spent much of his life as a theologian. Now he is Malawi's new president. DW takes a look at what made this man, and what kind of country he is about to lead.

Lazarus Chakwera speaks into a microphone before a massive crowd of supporters.
Image: Reuters/E. Chagara

Malawi's opposition leader Lazarus Chakwera has won Malawi's rerun elections held on Tuesday to become the country's new president. 

The Malawi Election Commission declared him the victor on Saturday with a dominant 58.57% of the vote ahead of incumbent President Peter Mutharika.

Mutharika, who has been in power since 2014, won 38% of the vote in last year's discredited elections in which Chakwera garnered 35%. Mutharika was even sworn into power, but evidence of electoral irregularities later led to the courts annulling the results.

The scrapping of Mutharika's 2019 victory by the courts was historic as it made Malawi just the second sub-Saharan African country to have presidential poll results set aside, after Kenya in 2017.

People stand in a line as they wait to vote in Malawi's elections.
Malawians queue for voting. This year's election has passed largely without major incidentImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/T. Chikondi

A rocky road to 2020 elections

Both the Constitutional and Supreme Courts were harshly critical of how the Malawi Electoral Commission handled the election, finding the Chairperson Jane Ansah and her commissioners incompetent. 

The 2019 election results also triggered months of nationwide protests, calling for new elections and demanding the Ansah's removal.

Read moreMalawians relieved after court voids presidential vote

When Ansah finally caved in and tendered her resignation in May this year, Mutharika responded by appointing former high court judge Chifundo Kachale as new chairperson, who vowed that Tuesday's rerun would be a free, fair and credible rerun. 

Peter Mutharika, incumbent presidental candidate speaks at his final election rally.
Incumbent President Peter Mutharika appointed a new head of the Malawi Electoral Commission, and ran in the 2020 election re-runImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/T. Chikondi

Despite Kachale being highly regarded by both the opposition and the ruling party, many feared the political clout of Mutharika, whose brother Bingu wa Mutharika served as Malawi's President from 2004 until his death in 2012, would still enable him to maintain a hold on power.

These fears have proven unfounded with Chakwera's victory. 

Who is Chakwera?

The 65-year-old Chakwera was born to a poor rural family in a tiny village outside of the capital, Lilongwe. He is a philosopher, theologian and clergyman by training and studied in Malawi, South Africa and the United States. 

Chakwera has been a presence in Malawian politics since 2013 as a leader of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) the party that led Malawi's fight for emancipation from British rule in the early 1960s. On that party's platform, he ran for president in 2014 and 2019, placing second both times.

After each election, Chakwera, a former pastor, has preached peace and urged Malawians to accept election results.

Alliances vitally important

Chakwera leads the Tonse Alliance, a group of nine opposition parties that he and his running mate Saulosi Chilima forged to defeat Mutharika. 

Alliances this year have been more important than ever after the Constitutional Court in February ruled that the victor must gain more than 50 percent of the vote, instead of the first-past-the-post system used previously.

Lazarus Chakwera raises his fist as he walks with protesters in March, 2019.
Lazarus Chakwera led the protests against last year's election results, citing voting irregularitiesImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Gumulira

Speaking at a press conference after casting his vote on Tuesday, Chakwera said the electoral commission had so far "given us the confidence that the will of Malawians is going to be respected.

Responding to statements from Mutharika that some opposition strongholds had seen violence on polling day, Chakwera said: "This is a peaceful country and we all need to vote peacefully and we all need to respect one another. And we do not need to fight. The vote is the fight."

What is Chakwera's vision for Malawi? 

Chakwera has campaigned on a ticket to transform Malawi into a middle-income economy by building a capable democratic developmental state. 

Five core pillars underpin his approach to governance: he values servant leadership; uniting Malawians; prospering together; ending corruption; judicial independence and rule of law.

Chakwera has outlined several key initiatives, including a universal fertilizer subsidy to guarantee food security for every household, and has promised to create 1 million jobs by revamping industries that would add value to the crops of Malawian farmers.

Much like his biblical name implies, Lazarus Chakwera has made a comeback in Malawian politics, and in a big way. 

Under his leadership, Chakwera wants to propel his country forward and turn it into "a New Malawi".

Mirriam Kaliza, DW-correspondent in Malawi
Mirriam Kaliza Mirriam is an experienced multimedia Malawian journalist with over a decade of expertise.@mirriamkaliza1
Kate Hairsine Australian-born journalist and senior editor who mainly focuses on Africa.