Democracy as a Limiting Factor for Politicised Cultural Populism in Malawi

Reuben Makayiko Chirambo


Though Malawian democracy could still be described as in transition from authoritarianism, it has enabled an atmosphere for critical debate of and dissent against seemingly popular opinions, which was not possible during the authoritarian rule of former life president, Dr. H. K. Banda, 1964-1994. This article examines politicised cultural populism in Malawi under the dictatorship and democracy in comparative terms. President Banda, as a political populist, appropriated culture to legitimate and validate his political power as well as to cultivate popular support from the majority of ordinary people. Following reforms towards democracy since 1992, his successors have also tended towards populist politics by similarly appropriating culture and cultural activities, among other means, to cultivate popular support from mostly ordinary people for their regimes. Such politicised cultural populism involves adopting traditional roles, cultural symbols and images of power such as praise-titles, and participating in cultural activities such as traditional dances. This article examines the efforts of President Bingu wa Mutharika in the democratic dispensation to appropriate cultural artefacts used by Banda during a dictatorship in order to cultivate popular support for his regime. The article argues that Bingu’s efforts at politicised cultural populism are constrained, among other factors, by the nature and climate of democratic politics mainly because democracy, unlike a dictatorship, enables critical debate and the questioning of political leader’s behaviour and their motives.

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