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date: 01 March 2021

Party Systems in Africafree

  • Matthias BasedauMatthias BasedauGIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies


Political party systems are an important element of political systems in Africa and elsewhere. They form the central intermediate institution between the general population and the government. Party systems represent and aggregate diverse political views and group interests, and they form coalitions that then form governments with potentially important consequences of democracy and political stability.

Unlike the case in the period directly after independence, African party systems have been overwhelmingly multiparty since the 1990s. As a result, the literature has grown significantly, although most works focus on political parties rather than party systems. Many efforts have been devoted to classification, referring to the legal context as well as, more specifically, the number of relevant parties, the levels of institutionalization, and, less often, the degree of ideological or other polarization. While levels of institutionalization and ideological differences are generally not pronounced, more than half of African party systems have been one-party dominant, of which most are authoritarian. In contrast, two-party and pluralist-party systems, which make up approximately one half of all multiparty systems, are generally more democratic. Besides determining classifications, most analytical work focuses on the determinants of African party systems using quantitative and qualitative as well as macro- and micro-level methodologies. Three determinants are debated: first, ethnicity, which has been cited as the main social cleavage behind African party systems; however, while ethnicity matters, its effects vary and are limited; second, political institutions, especially electoral systems for legislative elections, which only partly explain fragmentation or other features; third, the performance of political parties and rationalist approaches. Scholars largely agree that all of these elements need to be taken into account. While certain functions of party systems may facilitate democratization and political stability or other outcomes, little empirical work exists on the consequences of party systems. Some evidence suggests that highly institutionalized, moderately fragmented, and polarized systems promote democracy. Future research faces many challenges, in particular the development of integrated theory and more fine-grained data, as well as an increased focus on the consequences of party systems.

Introduction and Definition of Party Systems

Since the wave of independence in the 1960s and, in particular, since the sweeping introduction of multiparty politics in sub-Saharan Africa during the early 1990s, political parties and political party systems have been important elements of African politics. Although Western scholars have focused on deficiencies of African parties compared to ideal types of Western parties (e.g., Bogaards, 2013; Carbone, 2007; Erdmann, 2004), most relevant African parties meet Giovanni Sartori’s minimal definition of a political party as “any political group that presents at elections, and is capable of placing through elections, candidates for public office” (Sartori, 1976, p. 64). However, party systems are more than the sum of their constituent elements. A party system is best described by the number of relevant political parties and their relations as well as the system’s stability, or “systemness” or “institutionalization,” over time (Mainwaring, 1998; Mair, 1997; Sartori, 1976, p. 64).

African party systems must also be understood according to their historical context, especially during the first decades after independence and the era after 1990 when political regimes in Africa changed dramatically. The classification of African party systems thus includes the legal and more or less democratic contexts within which the corresponding systems operate. More specifically, scholars focus on fragmentation, institutionalization, and, less frequently, ideological and other polarization. Academic works also frequently consider the determinants of party systems as well as, less often, the consequences of their characteristics for democratization and political stability. African party systems can also be investigated with regard to various other substantive and methodological aspects, such as interregional comparison and the extent to which they might be strengthened in the future.

Historical Context

African political parties began to emerge during the colonial period, especially in the French and British colonial territories, when in some colonies Europeans began to hold elections for representative bodies with limited representative and executive functions (Carbone, 2007). Examples include the Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (RDA, established 1946) in French West and Equatorial Africa and the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC, established 1947) in Ghana, then the British territory of Gold Coast (see, e.g., Bogaards, 2013; van de Walle, 2003).

Postcolonial Political Party Systems

These early political parties and their breakaway groups were often critical in forming the ruling parties of the early postcolonial “indigenous” regimes that emerged after independence (Bratton & van de Walle, 1997; Cheeseman, 2015, pp. 32–56). La Palombara and Weiner (1966, p. 29) characterized African political parties as not being political parties “as we are using the term.” The late Giovanni Sartori described these early years of African party politics as the “African Labyrinth,” given the frequently chaotic and “formless” nature of institutionalization (Erdmann, 2004; Sartori, 1976). The first decades of postcolonial Africa saw the early multiparty systems being replaced by one-party systems or military regimes, often accompanied by considerable conflict (Bogaards, 2013; Bratton & van de Walle, 1997; Cheeseman, 2015; Schachter, 1961). Only in a few countries did multi-partyism survive the whole postcolonial period leading up to the 1990s. In Botswana and The Gambia, and Zimbabwe after its independence in 1980, dominant-party systems were maintained until the end of the Cold War. It was only in Mauritius that genuine multi-partyism with turnovers at the ballot box occurred throughout the whole postcolonial period. In Senegal, a multiparty system was re-established in the early 1980s. During the immediate postcolonial period in the 1960s, there was quite substantial interest in the study of African parties (e.g., Barker, 1973; La Palombara & Weiner, 1966; Miller, 1970, 1975; Schachter, 1961), but less so on African party systems (e.g., Coleman & Rosberg, 1966; Lemarchand, 1972; McKown & Kauffman, 1973). However, this research died down subsequently, with little work devoted to their study in the 1980s.

The Secular Shift to Multi-Partyism After 1990

When the winds of change from Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 reached the shores of Africa, they shook the existing political regimes—and hence political party systems—that were chronically unstable given their poor socioeconomic and political record. As a result, domestic and international pressures led to a secular shift toward multi-partyism in the region (Elischer, 2013; Morse, 2015). In 1989, only a handful of countries allowed multi-partyism and multiparty elections, and most were either military regimes or one-party regimes (Bratton & van de Walle, 1997, p. 77; Carbone, 2007, p. 4). Soon after, the great majority of countries were holding multiparty elections or at least legally allowing for more than one political party (Butler & van de Walle, 1999; Manning, 2005). By 1995, only a few non- or one-party systems persisted. Uganda initially tried to introduce “no-party democracy,” with competitive elections held without the participation of several parties, but gave up only a few years later (Bogaards, 2013; Carbone, 2003). In Rwanda, multiparty elections were finally held in 2003 (Stroh, 2010). The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) legalized multi-partyism in the early 1990s but lapsed into a gruesome civil war that only ended in the early part of the following decade.

As of early 2018, only three or four countries did not hold multiparty elections. The collapsed state of Somalia, the one-party state of Eritrea, and the absolute monarchy of Swaziland have resisted all pressure to open up. In the youngest sub-Saharan state, South Sudan, which became independent in 2011, no national elections were held after independence as the country quickly lapsed into crisis and civil war. The sweeping success of multi-partyism, however, must not be equated with substantial multiparty democracy. A number of rather “hard” autocracies, such as Angola, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, the DRC, and Zimbabwe, are what has been coined “electoral autocracies.” Although they hold multiparty elections somewhat regularly, they remain in essence authoritarian regimes.

Types and Classification of African Party Systems

Many scholarly works deal with the description and classification of political party systems in Africa. Individual political parties, or the sum of political parties in one given African country, are often described via a long list of dysfunctionalities such as domination by Big Men; a lack of identifiable values and ideas, programs, and organization; loose if not non-existent connections to civil society; strong ethnicization; inactivity between elections; and other deficiencies (e.g., Erdmann, 2004; Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2007; Salih, 2003). Many case studies and comparative works have shown, however, that parties and systems differ regarding their characteristics across sub-Saharan countries and within individual countries (e.g., Basedau & Stroh, 2008; Cheeseman, 2015, p. 188; Erdmann & Basedau, 2013; van de Walle, 2003; Weghorst & Bernhard, 2014).

Legal Context

At the system level, the most important contextual condition of a party system is the legal framework in which the political parties operate; regulations can limit the number of political parties to one or a restricted number (e.g., a block party system in which several parties exist but do not run in elections independently but in a “block”; examples include Iraq under Saddam Hussein and the former German Democratic Republic) or can proscribe or outlaw certain characteristics—for instance, via bans on ethnic or other particularistic political parties, which are widely applied in African countries (Bogaards, Elischer, & Becher, 2014; Moroff, 2010). A special and virtually extinct case is the idea of no-party democracy, which strives to maintain key elements of democracy such as participation and competition but without multi-partyism, as the latter’s tendency to partisanship and mobilization based on ethnic identity could be seen as a driver of violent conflict (Bogaards, 2013; Carbone, 2003; Wiredu, 1995).

Fragmentation, Institutionalization, and Polarization

Beyond the legal or democratic context, scholars mainly describe African (multi)party systems according to three characteristics. Following Giovanni Sartori’s seminal work Parties and Party Systems (Sartori, 1976), political party systems can be classified according to the number of relevant political parties and their “systemness” or institutionalization, which describes the stability of a system of political parties (Mainwaring, 1998; Mair, 1997). A third criterion is polarization, which originally captured the ideological differences between the major political parties, in regular terms, along a left–right continuum. Polarization can also apply to the level of confrontation versus cooperation between political parties (Basedau & Stroh, 2011). Sartori originally also looked at the legal character of several parties, but since the sweeping introduction of multiparty politics, this criterion appears to have become more or less obsolete, except for the few examples and the aspect of bans on certain types of parties mentioned in the section “Legal Context.” With only a few exceptions, party politics in Africa is now multiparty politics. However, scholars still distinguish between democratic and only partially or barely democratic multiparty systems.

Regarding fragmentation, the rise of multi-partyism was soon followed by an increase in dominant-party systems, which are those systems where individual parties have won absolute majorities in at least three subsequent elections, according to the classical Sartorian definition. At least 50% of all African party systems exhibited this trait in the initial decades following 1990 (Bogaards, 2004; Doorenspleet & Nijzink, 2013). Cheeseman (2015, p. 188), for instance, for the most recent period counts 18 dominant-party systems and 12 two-party or multiparty systems on the basis of one election and the relative shares of seats. The various classifications differ according to counting rules for dominant-party systems, which have been widely discussed in the literature in and beyond Africa (see, e.g., Bogaards, 2004; Pempel, 1990). Important aspects of these rules include the number of subsequent legislative elections to be taken into account, the type of election (presidential vs. legislative), the threshold for determining dominance in one election, and the question of whether the heads of state in Africa’s mostly presidential political systems belong to the same party as the dominant party in parliament.

The dominant-party systems can be further differentiated into two subtypes: hegemonic systems—that is, authoritarian party systems—and predominant-party systems, where political parties win absolute majorities without resorting to unfair and undemocratic means (see Erdmann & Basedau, 2013). Examples of the latter include the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa, the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) in Botswana, and the South West African People’s Organization (SWAPO) in Namibia. Hegemonic party systems are entrenched in Angola, Cameroon, and Equatorial Guinea. Accordingly, Erdmann and Basedau (2013) counted 39 party systems, of which 24 were dominant. Twenty party systems were characterized as institutionalized, of which 80% were dominant. Only three of these institutionalized systems were democratic. Since the turn of the millennium, many formerly hegemonic party systems have collapsed—for instance, in Burkina Faso, Guinea, and The Gambia. In Nigeria, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which had dominated since re-democratization in 1999, lost the general elections in 2015. Generally, dominant-party systems have been on the decline since the turn of the millennium. Even some of the most stable and rather democratic dominant parties, such as South Africa’s ANC and Botswana’s BDP, have come under pressure from opposition parties in the (last) general elections in 2014 (Southall, 2013; Sumich, 2017).

Table 1. African Party Systems According to the Number of Relevant Parties and the Level of Democratization

No Multiparty Elections

Dominant-Party System

Approximate Two-Party System

Pluralism (>2 Relevant Parties)

Electoral democracy

Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania

Burkina Faso,* Cape Verde, Ghana, Seychelles

Benin, Comoros, Guinea,* Lesotho, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, São Tomé and Príncipe, Senegal, Sierra Leone,


Eritrea, Somalia, Swaziland; South Sudan

Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Congo (Brazzaville), Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania,* Mozambique, Rwanda, Sudan, Togo, Uganda, Zimbabwe

Nigeria, The Gambia*

Central African Republic,* DR Congo, Kenya, Mali,* Niger, Zambia

N= 49 (all countries)

4 (0 electoral democracies)

22 (4)

6 (4)

17 (11)

Note: Electoral democracies are countries both rated as “electoral democracies” by Freedom House and as “democracies” (minimal) by the Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI; which also rates Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, and Nigeria as “democracies” in a minimal sense). All classifications are based on the last two to three legislative election results (as of February 2018). “Dominant” requires that in the three last elections or all elections since the last regime change (when there were less than three elections) majorities were won by the same party. “Two-party” requires absolute majorities by two different parties in the last two elections. “Pluralism” requires more than two parties being necessary for an absolute majority; this category also includes highly fragmented cases. Countries in which only one election was held after the last regime change (e.g., Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Mali, The Gambia, and Mauritania) are indicated by an asterisk (*). “No multiparty” elections means that no legislative elections have been held in the last 10 years (from 2018 back) or since independence. For similar but not identical classifications, see Cheeseman (2015, p. 188).

Source: Author’s own compilation.

In other countries, fragmentation within the party system is high and is mostly accompanied by very low levels of institutionalization (Kuenzi & Lambright, 2001; Lindberg, 2007; Mozaffar & Scarritt, 2005; Weghorst & Bernhard, 2014). Notorious examples of such “inchoate” systems (Mainwaring, 1998) include Benin, Kenya, Malawi, and the DRC. Very few party systems resemble stable, institutionalized, and moderately multiparty or two-party systems. Two examples of the latter are Mauritius and Ghana.

Table 1 summarizes the situation regarding the levels of fragmentation and democratization as of early 2018, including all 49 sub-Saharan African countries. The number of relevant parties is calculated based mainly on the last two to three legislative elections. In a number of countries such as Burkina Faso, Mali, or the Central African Republic, only one election was held since the last regime change (see Table 1). Dominant-party systems require an absolute majority by one party in three most recent elections or all elections since the last regime change if less than three elections were held. Such dominant-party systems form almost half of the multiparty systems in the sub-Saharan region, followed by several forms of pluralism. Only a relatively small minority can be seen as approximate two-party systems, a classification which requires that two different parties won the last two elections with absolute majorities. The examples in the table also comprise cases such as Burkina Faso, The Gambia, Nigeria, and the Seychelles, where formerly dominant parties collapsed and were defeated by opposition parties. It remains to be seen whether these party systems will develop into new dominant-party systems. Only Ghana and Cape Verde truly count as classical two-party systems in which several turnovers at the ballot box have taken place.

Ghana exhibits a rare and modest ideological difference between the two main parties, the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and the New Patriotic Party (NPP), more or less in line with a distinction between left and right (Lindberg & Morrison, 2005; Morrison, 2004; Osei, 2013). There are relatively few works on ideological polarization in African party systems. Some studies measure conflict between political parties, but refer to behavioral rather than ideological incompatibilities (Basedau, 2007; Basedau & Stroh, 2011). It appears to be conventional wisdom that parties do not differ much in terms of values, ideas, and programs, with the general explanation being that this is due to the historical conditions under which African parties have emerged (Erdmann, 2004)—especially in contrast to the conditions in western Europe and North America, with which the conditions of African parties are often, explicitly or implicitly, compared.

In sum, many African party systems are dominated by one party, while others are highly fragmented, mostly with limited institutionalization, the latter not being reflected in the classification of Table 1. Scholars have yielded evidence that party system institutionalization or stability is overall low in Africa, especially compared to other world regions (Kuenzi & Lambright, 2001; Mozaffar & Scarritt, 2005). Erdmann and Basedau (2013) only count around 50% of the party systems as institutionalized. Some have argued that the combination of one-party dominance and low institutionalization is the hallmark of African party systems (Mozaffar & Scarritt, 2005), but it can be argued that these features do not often occur at the same time, as one-party dominant systems often show a relatively high level of institutionalization (Bogaards, 2008). This often applies not only to the dominant party but also to its opponents. What is likely the most distinct feature, however, is the extensive variety in the overall characteristics of multiparty systems. Seen from a comparative perspective (Brambor, Roberts, & Golder, 2007; Weghorst & Bernhard, 2014), they exhibit some distinct features unique to the region, but they also display similarities with other regions, including those phenomena that determine the shape of party systems.

Determinants of Political Party Systems in Contemporary Africa

A variety of works on African party systems have investigated the determinants of political party systems in Africa, mostly focusing on aspects of fragmentation or voting behavior, and—to a lesser extent—on institutionalization. Methodologically, most works either use cross-country comparative statistical approaches or micro-level data based on single-country cases. A number of studies engage in classical qualitative controlled comparison of a small number of country cases. Roughly three main strands of argumentation have been put forward to explain why African party systems are what they are.

Social Cleavages: Ethnicity

The first strand deals with the social composition of the societies, which party systems are supposed to mirror. However, classical macro-sociological and cleavage-based explanations of African party systems have largely failed to provide convincing answers as to what shapes these systems. This should come as no surprise, as the social cleavages that explain the formation of party systems in Europe and North America (Lipset & Rokkan, 1967), such as industrialization or the struggle between the Church and secular forces, have been mostly absent in postcolonial Africa. Other cleavages, such as that between a country’s center and periphery, can be roughly identified as ethnic cleavages (Erdmann, 2004). In fact, African politics have long been stereotyped as being dominated by ethnicization, often in a clientelist manner. Accordingly, African parties and party systems have frequently been labeled mostly “ethnic” or “ethnicized” (Elischer, 2013). At the level of individual political parties, this only partially holds true. Depending on how ethnic parties are counted, only a fraction can be labeled as such (Basedau & Stroh, 2012; Cheeseman & Ford, 2007; Elischer, 2013; Norris & Mattes, 2003). At the system level, ethnicity is apparently one but not necessarily the main driver of fragmentation or other characteristics such as opposition mobilization (Cheeseman & Larmer, 2015). Voters tend to identify with political parties of their ethnic kin, but this is by no means the main and sole determinant (Eifert, Miguel, & Posner, 2010; Hoffman & Long, 2013; Lieberman & McClendon, 2013; Mozaffar, Scarritt, & Galaich, 2003; Weghorst & Bernhard, 2014; on an international level: Lublin, 2017). Some political parties and party systems are much more nationalized than the ethnic fractionalization of the society in question would suggest (Wahman, 2015). Often it is unclear whether regional and ethnic cleavages are exerting an impact (Basedau & Stroh, 2012).

Political Institutions: Ethnic Party Bans and Electoral Systems

The relative role of ethnicity in the formation of African party systems is also due to the effects of political institutions (see, e.g., Ishiyama, 2003; Ishiyama & Quinn, 2006; Mozaffar et al., 2003; Weghorst & Bernhard, 2014). When multi-partyism was reintroduced in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa at the beginning of the 1990s, fears quickly emerged that political parties would form along ethnic lines, resulting in ethnic conflict (Erdmann, 2007a). As a result, almost all African countries with multiparty systems banned ethnic and other particularistic political parties (Moroff, 2010). In some cases, the legislation requires that political parties are nationalized. This has been apparently successful in a number of cases, although it remains unclear to what extent such decrees have influenced the formation of the party systems, as a number of loopholes persist (Bogaards et al., 2014; Wahman, 2015). The more classical institution-based explanations refer to electoral systems for parliamentary elections. According to Maurice Duverger’s laws (Duverger, 1954), by and large, majoritarian electoral systems tend to reduce the number of political parties while electoral systems based on the principle of proportional representation (PR) allow for a larger number of political parties to be represented in national assemblies. In Africa, district magnitude (i.e., the number of deputies per constituency) has a tangible but limited effect on party system fragmentation and other features (Ishiyama, 2003; Ishiyama & Quinn, 2006; Wahman, 2015; Weghorst & Bernhard, 2014). In general, electoral systems offer a limited basis for explaining African party systems. Dominant-party systems, for instance, emerged in cases with classical majoritarian systems, such as the British first-past-the-post system in Botswana or Tanzania, while strong PR systems such as those in Namibia and South Africa resulted in the same phenomenon. The same holds true for mixed systems in Angola and elsewhere (Bogaards, 2004; Erdmann & Basedau, 2013).

Performance: Rationalism and Clientelism

A third strand of variables refers to the performance of political parties and hence to explanations that build on rationalist approaches. For instance, former liberation movements in southern Africa have drawn on their historical merit and have at the same time used the “historical baggage” of other parties, which were close to the former oppressors, to delegitimize their opponents (Giollabhuí, 2011; Melber, 2003; Southall, 2013; Sumich, 2017). However, the “born free” generation may no longer be satisfied with historical merit and is asking for substantial change in economic and social terms. South Africa’s ANC has been losing ground recently. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe had to resort to foul play to stay in power, ruining the country’s once flourishing economy. The aging patriarch was ousted in late 2017. Clearly, economic and other government performance matters (see, e.g., Kuenzi, Tuman, Rissmann, & Lambright, 2017). It partially explains the success of Botswana’s BDP and the growing dissent in other less well-performing countries. At the level of large-N empirical studies, there is some evidence that African voters are also rational voters and reward or punish rulers’ performance (Erdmann, 2007b; Lindberg, 2008). Even clientelist and ethnic behavior has a rational aspect to it. Ethnic, regional, or other kinship provides informational shortcuts regarding who is going to provide or not provide goods to the particular group of voters, which points to the rational underpinnings of clientelist networks of mutual support and identity politics (Amundsen, 2001; Lindberg & Morrison, 2005; Weghorst & Lindberg, 2011).

To summarize, the individual drivers of party system formation are still rather poorly understood for the most part; it appears that a mixture of multiple drivers, and not just ethnicity, matters (Bratton, Bhavnani, & Chen, 2012; Erdmann, 2007a, 2007b; Stroh, 2014; Weghorst & Bernhard, 2014). In fact, different approaches can and must be combined to fully understand how and why African party systems have taken the shape they have.

Consequences of Political Party Systems

Scholars have been relatively reluctant to study the consequences of various types of party systems in Africa. This is somewhat surprising as in theory, especially according to a functionalist approach as indicated in the introduction of this article, political party systems form the central intermediate institution between the general population and the government. Party systems represent and aggregate diverse political views and group interests, and they form coalitions that then form governments (Bogaards, 2008, 2013).


A number of functional deficits may harm democracy, be conducive to conflict, or otherwise hinder government performance (Bogaards, 2008; Karvonen & Anckar, 2002; Makinda, 1996; Randall & Svåsand, 2002a, 2002b). Overly high levels of fractionalization and polarization can hinder government formation and result in institutional impasse, thereby creating the conditions for coups and armed conflict. One-party dominance may marginalize the opposition and thus harm democracy or encourage violent resistance. Dominant government parties turned liberalization movements, as in Namibia, Mozambique, and South Africa, may have issues in adapting to democratic culture and not in perceiving opposition parties as enemies (Melber, 2003); former single and now dominant parties, as in Cameroon and Tanzania, might similarly struggle with accepting political opposition.

More fine-grained theorizing disaggregates the aspects of democracy and party systems. When party systems are unstable, they can hardly meet the criteria of representation and, especially, accountability. Stable patterns of representation cannot emerge and voters cannot hold parties accountable when they disappear in the next election.

While there is no dearth of theoretical arguments, empirical studies are rare. Table 1 suggests that one-party dominance hinders democratization—as more than three-quarters of dominant parties are associated with authoritarianism—but it remains unclear whether it is authoritarianism that drives one-party dominance or the other way around. Bratton and van de Walle (1997) found little evidence that the type of party system before 1990 had an impact on the subsequent success of democracy. Kuenzi and Lambright (2001) yield support for the idea that more institutionalization also means more democracy. Basedau (2007) looks at three characteristics and finds some evidence that party systems with moderate fragmentation, higher institutionalization, and low (behavioral) polarization increase the likelihood of democracy (see similarly Basedau and Stroh [2011] on four francophone cases). Lindberg (2006a) finds that the success of opposition parties facilitates democratization. However, whether the repeated holding of multiparty elections—if we accept this as a characteristic of party systems—is conducive to democratization, as Lindberg (2006b) argues, or merely a byproduct of democratization, as Bogaards (2014) suggests, remains contested.

Political Stability and Violence

There are even fewer works on the potential effects of party systems on political stability and violence. Studying the effects of legal bans on ethnic and other particularistic parties, Basedau and Moroff (2011) found little evidence of a pacifying and democratizing effect. In cases such as Rwanda, the ban on ethnic parties is not only a result of the history of ethnic genocide but also a measure to silence opposition if necessary (Basedau & Moroff, 2011). Electoral violence is another field of research that might be linked to the characteristics of party systems. However, studies in this area usually do not identify characteristics of the party system as a central driver of this violence (Becher, 2016; Straus & Taylor, 2009).

The lack of evidence might be due to the lack of studies or comparable data, but there are also theoretical reasons to believe that party systems have a limited influence on democratization and political stability. First, they are intermediate institutions that reflect structures and political culture. Second, institutionally, Nicolas van de Walle has named parliamentary elections “side shows” (van de Walle, 2003, p. 310) compared to presidential elections, where real power is at stake; political parties frequently appear to be machines with which to get Big Men elected. Third, there are many other factors that are essential for democratization and other political developments. Robert Dahl (1991) listed five essential and favorable conditions for democracy, which are still by and large valid, such as control over the security forces, a modern and wealthy society, pro-democratic views among leaders, no anti-democratic external powers with considerable influence, and amicable relations between identity groups (or institutions that accommodate potential tensions). Party systems are not directly mentioned. The same holds true for the drivers of armed conflict. The list of robust correlates of armed conflicts does not include political party systems (Hegre & Sambanis, 2006).

The Way Forward

Multiparty systems will be an integral part of the future politics of sub-Saharan Africa and their study has grown significantly, especially after the secular shift toward multi-partyism in the 1990s. Many efforts have been devoted to classification, referring to the legal context as well as more specifically the number of relevant parties, the levels of institutionalization, and, less often, the degree of ideological or other polarization. While levels of institutionalization and ideological differences are generally not pronounced, around 50% of African party systems have been one-party dominant, of which most are authoritarian. Two-party and pluralist-party systems are generally more democratic. Most analytical work focuses on the determinants of African party systems, and three determinants are debated: First, ethnicity matters, but its effects vary and are limited. Second, political institutions, especially electoral systems for legislative elections, only partly explain fragmentation or other features. Third, the performance of political parties and rationalist approaches also count. Generally, scholars largely agree that all of these three elements need to be taken into account. While certain functions of party systems may facilitate democratization and political stability or other outcomes, little empirical work exists on the consequences of party systems. Some evidence suggests that highly institutionalized, moderately fragmented, and polarized systems promote democracy. Many research gaps persist, however, and various areas of future research need to be tackled (see Bogaards, 2013; Carbone, 2007; Erdmann, 2004).

Prospective Topics

Potential areas of study include, for instance, the relations of party systems with civil society and the population at large. Political parties and the systems they form enjoy a relatively high degree of popular trust in Africa. Generally, trust in multiparty systems is higher than in individual parties, although survey polls cannot be fully compared. Across 20 surveyed countries, the Afrobarometer finds 68% support of the respondents, on average, for multiparty competition. This can partially at best be equated with trust in the party system in general, but trust in individual parties ranges, on average, from over 30% for opposition parties to over 50% for ruling parties (Bratton & Logan, 2015), which is high compared to the trust received by these parties’ Western counterparts. Other topics include how parties and party systems work at the local level or within particular institutions, such as parliament, both formally and informally (Osei, 2013, 2016). The international dimension also deserves further examination. Comparison shows that many features, drivers, and consequences of party systems in Africa are similar to those in other world regions, while others appear to be different. This article has particularly discussed low levels of institutionalization, the absence of ideological differences, and the high share of dominant-party systems (see, e.g., Bogaards, 2008; Mozaffar & Scarritt, 2005; Weghorst & Bernhard, 2014). Another international topic worth studying might be the relations of parties with other parties. African parties are frequently members of international party families, and they often enjoy support and cooperation from outside organizations such as political foundations (Burnell & Gerrits, 2010; Erdmann, 2005; Weissenbach, 2010).

Theoretical and Methodological Challenges

In general, more fine-grained and extensive data on African party systems and their constituents, the political parties, are needed. This applies particularly to the more exotic and less frequently investigated cases in francophone and lusophone Africa. Micro-level data in particular are extremely useful, but they are often only available for specific country cases, making generalization difficult. Information and the data used should hence include all levels of analysis: At the macro level, scholars should not settle for easily available data but should instead make efforts to compile information on, for instance, issue- and ideology-related polarization. In addition to digging deeper with regard to the determinants, studies should address the key challenge of examining the consequences of African party systems and their characteristics in more detail. Party system characteristics form an integral and potentially key part of political systems, and they certainly matter in one way or another for democratization, political stability, and other outcomes. Finally, scholars need to take conceptual and theoretical levels seriously. The difference between political parties and party systems needs to be fully understood. While there is no shortage of theoretical approaches, a more unified and integrated effort to combine different approaches will be a promising way forward.

Further Reading

  • Basedau, M., Erdmann, G., & Mehler, A. (Eds.). (2007). Votes, money and violence. Political parties and elections in sub-Saharan Africa. Uppsala, Sweden; Scottsville, South Africa: Nordiska Afrika Institutet, KwaZulu-Natal Press.
  • Bleck, J., & van de Walle, N. (2011). Parties and issues in francophone West Africa: Towards a theory of non-mobilization. Democratization, 18(5), 1125–1145.
  • Butler, K., & van de Walle, N. (1999). Political parties and party systems in Africa’s illiberal democracies. Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 12(1), 14–28.
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