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Freedom and the Heart of Democracy in Central Malawi: popular interactions with the 2019 Tripartite Elections in a rural constituency



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Farrell, Sam 


This thesis is an ethnographic examination of the popular meanings and practices of democracy in central Malawi during the 2019 Tripartite Elections. Following the 30-year rule of Life President Kamuzu Banda and the Malawi Congress Party, Malawi transitioned from an authoritarian, single-party state to a liberal democracy in 1993, adopting multi-party elections and a new constitution guaranteeing a range of rights. However, the question still remains as to how the predominantly rural Malawian population engages with democratic politics and processes. The thesis explores this question through an ethnographic examination of how constituents in a rural constituency in the central region understood and interacted with the practices, actors and technologies that comprised the 2019 Tripartite Elections. Drawing on a 15-month period of fieldwork, a case study of a village and a variety of other actors, such as parliamentary candidates, local party officials and village headmen, are followed over the course of the election cycle. The focus on an election was inspired by recent anthropological work on democracy, which has not only demonstrated the usefulness of the ethnographic method for understanding democratic systems and elections, but has challenged normative, static definitions of democracy; suggesting instead that democracy is a historically grounded, open-ended process that shapes, and is shaped by, the contexts it travels through. The chapters in the thesis expand on this literature by describing how several aspects of the 2019 election process were interpreted and refigured by interlocutors through broader political, socio-economic and ecological contexts that had significance in their everyday lives, which were themselves affected by these interactions (chapter 1). It thus offers an in-depth account of a political process within social life. However, the thesis takes anthropological engagement with democracy a step further by highlighting the importance of popular practices of freedom in constituting the electoral process and broader social relations. In chapter 2, I argue that constituents interpreted the secret ballot through popular discourses and practices of secrecy, especially discourses surrounding the Chichewa word for heart (mtima) and the unknowability of others, which enabled them to participate in democratic politics more broadly by practicing a form of political freedom where they could keep their intentions hidden or unacknowledged. Subsequent chapters document the relevance of this freedom in shaping several features of popular democratic practice in the constituency throughout the election process, such as the dynamics of local party politics (chapter 3), the moral grounds of relationships between politicians or political parties and constituents (chapter 4), the formation of political legitimacy and national identity (chapter 5) and the importance of radio and social media and popular ways of scrutinizing and contesting the state (chapter 6). One of the key contributions of the thesis is therefore to suggest that anthropologists should consider the role of practices of freedom in constituting democratic processes. In anthropology more broadly, it highlights the applicability of freedom as an ethnographic category, but an expansive, open-ended category inclusive of a diversity of meanings and practices across different ethnographic settings, challenging restrictive or normative definitions of freedom.





Englund, Harri


Democracy, Malawi, Freedom, Elections, Ethnography


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
ESRC (1953725)
Economic and Social Research Council (1953725)
ESRC DTP King’s College Studentship; Henry Ling Roth Scholarship (Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge); Richards Fund; (Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge).