Why do people care so much about how many people attended a rally?

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The end of the 2023 Zimbabwe election campaign marks another in which partisans have traded words, day in, day out, about how many people attended their rallies. One party’s advocates would assert that their rallies were packed. It’s opponents would claim it was empty. Disputes like this play-out in campaign after campaign. But not, new research argues, only for the reasons we think.

Past analyses focus on popularity. In one account, partisans dispute rally size because it is taken, rightly or wrongly, as indicative of how many people support a politician or party. In one variant, this popularity is taken as indicative of their electoral viability to the public and to other politicians. In another, it is used to pre-emptively discredit rigged election results.

I have spent ten years studying rallies in Tanzania, the country with the most rally-intensive campaigns in the world. Through ethnographic research and discourse analysis, I have analysed how rallies are produced and what is communicated at them and through them. In a special issue dedicated to rally communications, what I argue in newly published research is that while rallies undoubtedly are used to project popularity, and viability, they miss out something done in making these claims: something even more significant, something about representation.

Ideas about representation have changed. Representation used to be thought of as having the status of fact. A system of government could be representative if its institutions were properly designed and upheld. A parliament could be representative if it properly mirrored those it represented.

Today, theorists recognise that there are multiple and equally valid ways in which some body of persons can be represented. To see a representative relationship is choose one of these conceptions of representation over others, and to choose one way of seeing the representative and the represented over others. It is inherently something constructed, something claimed.

In other terminologies and frameworks, this has been recognised in Africa as much as elsewhere. Analysts have teased out how President Ruto presents himself as the embodiment of hustlers, liberation movements in power claim to represent the nation as its guardians, and NGOs claim to speak and act for their localities.

What I argue in newly published research is that representative claims are made, in particular, at rallies. Of course, politicians make representative claims across all sorts of media and platforms, but the format of the rally facilitates the making of such claims. That format, in its most parsimonious form, is a speaker addressing a mass audience. The rally simplifies a complex social landscape into a meeting of two parties. The roles of speaker and audience, no matter who steps into them, provide two entities onto which the identities of representative and represented can be grafted. In this way, the rally format makes an ideal canvass onto which representative claims can be painted.

At the rallies which I analyse in Tanzania, speakers portray themselves as representatives of the audiences before them. As they hold the microphones and do the lion’s share of the talking, they have plenty of opportunities to do so. But they also draft the audiences into that those portrayals. They ask audiences what they want and then promise to deliver it. They pronounce their positions and then ask audiences whether they approve. Through calls and answers, clap-traps, rhetorical questions and the artful production of rallies, they create the impression, often implicit, that there is a link between them. They create the sense that they share opinions, identities and experiences, that they are of one mind and one cause. They suggest, into the bargain, that the audience which the speaker represents, in turn represents some larger entity. It embodies not just partisans, but the city where the rally is held, or ‘the hustlers,’ or ‘the nation.’

All these efforts undertaken at the rally, of course, are replicated in the efforts to shape media coverage of rallies. It is easy to see why. The photos taken of rallies vividly distil the meeting speaker and audience onto which representative relationships are projected. So do the videos. What I saw in Tanzania was parties and their media allies strive to produce and push such media content at their rallies. Through all of these practices, and others besides politicians and their partisans take advantage of this affinity between representative claim-making and the rally.

Of course, when these images become compelling and these claims become resonant, they give those constructed as representatives symbolic power. When those (constructed) representatives speak, they speak implicitly on behalf of those they represent. When their person is criticised or obstructed, those who they represent are criticised or obstructed. Rallies can change, in the popular imagination, who politicians are and for what, or who, they stand.

So when partisans contest how big a crowd is, they are not only trying to take a head-count of how many supporters they have in a place or demonstrate to others their viability in a forthcoming election. They are struggling to summon or dissipate that symbolic power.

Of course, this affinity between the rally and representative claim-making is not only utilised in African settings. The rallies of politicians from Barack Obama to Narendra Modi are produced and mediated to form representative claims.

Yet in much of sub-Saharan Africa, the rally is more than just one medium of communication among many. It is a principal mode of face-to-face contact and a principal device for drawing and holding media attention. In these rally-intensive communication systems, the representative imaginaries which politicians and partisans conjure are, in large part, those they conjure at rallies. They are inflected with the dynamics, the aesthetics, the practicalities and the miscellanea of the rally.

Dr. Dan Paget is a lecturer in politics at the University of Aberdeen. You can find more of his work at danpaget.com.

Check out Dan’s previous piece on how elections are won through rallies here.

Photo used with permission by CHADEMA.

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