Accepted Paper:

"It works to our negative side, as a people": The demo-pessimism of Malawian MPs  


Calum Fisher (SOAS, University of London)

Paper short abstract:

Analyses the normative relationship between state and society in Malawi through the ideational frameworks that inform MPs' relationships to their constituents. These culminate in an emergent indigenous critique of democracy-as-indiscipline. The contours, extent, implications of this are considered

Paper long abstract:

This paper renders the normative relationship between state and society in Malawi in expressly human terms by means of an analysis of the ideational frameworks that inform Members' of Parliament's relationships to their constituents. In so doing it aims to shed light on a strikingly prevalent yet little-analysed indigenous critique of democracy that appears increasingly operative at multiple levels of Malawian politics and society.

Drawing upon over 100 interviews with current and former MPs, it is demonstrated how MPs typically conceive of their constituents, and the ("other-ing") attitudes towards them that overwhelmingly result. These attitudes in turn shape MPs' understandings of their proper role as an MP, but also give rise to a more or less explicit critique of electoral democracy and its appropriateness to Malawian conditions. Amongst Malawian MPs, "democracy" appears increasingly to be equated with freedom-as-licence and, above all, with a lack (and loss) of "discipline" across society. Democracy is simultaneously understood to be failing in multiple ways because of indiscipline, and at the same time to itself foster (further) indiscipline.

The paper draws connections between this "demo-pessimism" and, first, the normative legacy of Malawi's founding dictator (and arch-disciplinarian) Hastings Kamuzu Banda; as well as, second, evolving contemporary understandings of his regime - which have given rise to a Banda-nostalgia whose ideological and political salience is increasingly evident, including in some surprising quarters. It concludes with some reflections on the wider prevalence of demo-pessimism across Malawian society and beyond, as well as its possible implications.

Panel Pol02
Normative politics in Africa