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date: 25 September 2020

Summary and Keywords

Since the early 1990s, most African countries have experimented with multiparty elections, but the building and institutionalization of political parties has proven difficult. In many countries, parties—including those holding power—are fluid, volatile, and lack grassroots structures. In others, the party landscape remains surprisingly similar to Van de Walle’s assessment: “[consisting] of a dominant presidential party surrounded by a large number of small, highly volatile parties.” As Van de Walle points out, ruling parties—including the ex-single parties that continue to rule in many of Africa’s hybrid regimes—have advantages that mean that elections are not fought on a level playing field. Ruling parties may use repression against challengers, or they may manipulate voter registration, constituency redistricting, and other aspects of electoral administration. Incumbents can also take advantage of state resources, and a decline in patronage resources has been a powerful driver of electoral turnover in regions. But differences in election competitiveness in Africa are not only a function of repression, manipulation, or access to patronage. Differences in both ruling party and opposition party organizations have independent effects on parties’ ability to win elections, on the loyalty of mass constituencies, and on the conduct of election campaigns. New scholarship has started to take these differences in party organization seriously, and this will enrich our understanding of how voters in sub-Saharan Africa navigate political choice. Research on parties and party systems highlights the degree to which these factors differ across countries and over time, complicating standard narratives that often privilege clientelism and ethnicity as the primary—and largely uniform—influences on voter behavior and government accountability on the continent.

Keywords: Africa, political parties, party systems, party dominance, political opposition, authoritarianism, campaigns, elections, ethnicity, clientelism, African politics

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