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date: 17 November 2019

Political Parties and Regime Outcomes in Multiparty Africa

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

Political Parties in the Authoritarian Period

Most African countries now hold multiparty elections of varying quality. The bulk of these multiparty election regimes were inaugurated in the early to mid-1990s after periods of military, single-party, or unstable authoritarian rule. In other parts of the world, transitions to multiparty democracy often marked a decisive break with the authoritarian past. In Africa, however, former authoritarian leaders and their parties were often successful in managing political opening in ways that would preserve their power and access to state resources, and they contested and often won founding multiparty elections (Bratton & Van de Walle, 1997). These managed transitions were not without contestation. Elections were often preceded by vibrant protests and civil society mobilization, and opposition parties often collectively won a significant share of the vote in founding elections. But continuity was the hallmark of most transitions from single-party or military rule to multiparty electoral contestation in sub-Saharan Africa.

Most African countries entered the multiparty period of the 1990s with fairly weak ruling party organizations. In the 1960s, careful empirical work on political parties reflected the view of many Africanist political scientists that ruling parties would be the major instruments of order and serve as forces for national integration in the newly independent states (e.g., Coleman & Rosberg, 1970; Morgenthau, 1964; Sklar, 1963; Zolberg, 1966). Even though some nationalist parties initially invested in branch structures and popular mobilization, many relied heavily on patron–client relations or pre-existing societal intermediaries, were characterized by fairly weak links between national leadership and local party structures, and often fused party and government institutions (Bienen, 1967; Foltz, 1969). By the 1970s, several of the parties that had won early independence elections had been removed from the political scene by military coups, while other parties had established single-party states. The end of open politics may have triggered further organizational decline in many of the ruling parties, evidenced by the erosion of local branches, factionalism, and increasing reliance on patronage to ensure elite cohesion (e.g., Bratton, 1980; Schumacher, 1975). In some countries, ruling parties operated as little more than a locus for elite cooptation and ethnic balancing (e.g., Bayart, 1973). Scholarly attention quickly turned to ethnicity, clientelism, and the role of informal institutions in shaping citizen-state linkage (e.g., Lemarchand, 1972).

For several decades, there was limited empirical work that focused explicitly on party organization, internal party decision-making (such as selection of candidates), or the role party structures played in mobilizing popular constituencies.1 This partly reflected the greater interest in understanding how local brokers and ethnic clientelism shaped state–society relations. Many of the single-party elections were marked by high levels of contestation, and these elections sometimes proved to be occasional pathways for the integration of new interests into the ruling elite (Gertzel & Szeftel, 1984; Hyden & Leys, 1972). Overall, however, the consensus was that authoritarian elections were important insofar as local-level competition established an effective means of identifying local (usually ethnic) brokers while stabilizing the power of the national elite (Barkan & Okumu, 1978). Literature of this period would also give us a wealth of information on the mobilization of ethnicity and other kinds of “mediated” political linkages between citizens and elites, such as the use of traditional or newly created institutions as substitutes for party structures (e.g., Bates, 1971; Cruise O’Brien, 1971; Dresang, 1974; Kasfir, 1976; Lemarchand, 1972). We will return to the question of mediated linkage in the section “The Character of African Party Organizations.”

As African governments began to institute political reforms in the early 1990s, the scholarly skepticism regarding political party organizations continued. The dismissal of party organizations as actors in their own right—and the tendency to view them either as congeries of patron–client relations or as elite clubs—denied scholars tools with which they might better understand variation in political outcomes. As the sections “Variation in the Survival of Authoritarian Ruling Parties” and “Party Organizations and Party Dominance” will detail, differences in party organization and rootedness determine how well parties respond to patronage shocks and rising opposition.

Variation in the Survival of Authoritarian Ruling Parties

Once multiparty elections were instituted in the early 1990s, countries began to diverge in their political trajectories fairly quickly. Several authoritarian parties lost power in founding elections to new opposition movements, which varied in their degree of organization. In Zambia, a well-organized labor-backed opposition movement won a landslide victory against the United National Independence Party (UNIP) in founding elections in 1991. In Malawi, on the other hand, opposition was not as well-organized and was split on regional lines, but the authoritarian ruling party was still soundly defeated in the 1994 founding elections. Nor did surviving the transition moment guarantee that former authoritarian ruling parties would hold onto power indefinitely. Over the past twenty years, authoritarian parties that survived the initial transition have also lost power—sometimes as the result of a strong opposition challenger, as in Ghana in 2000, but more often via the slow erosion of the party and defection of its candidates to rivals, as in Kenya in 2002. Still other parties, notably those in the mineral-exporting states and weak patrimonial parties like those in Cameroon and Gabon, have survived the multiparty period by closing political space and cracking down on popular protest. Finally, there are a set of cases that seem to be genuine party dominant regimes, in which ruling parties seem organizationally strong and capable of mobilizing significant internal support.

Readers will observe in Table 1 that party dominance—defined here as 20 consecutive years in power—is fairly common in Africa, despite the turn to multiparty electoral contestation in the early 1990s. Of the 37 more stable countries in that table, 18 are characterized by some degree of party dominance.2 Several of these, including Angola, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon, are fully closed political systems and are best seen as competitive authoritarian rather than hybrid regimes, since the latter requires some degree of political opening. But party-dominant regimes also include regimes with much greater amounts of political freedom and openness to contestation. A cluster of cases in southern Africa—Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa—are full democracies but are still characterized by party dominance. Other than Zimbabwe, Botswana is the only party-dominant system on the continent that did not experience a period of authoritarian single-party rule. The Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) has been in power since 1966, but opposition parties have won some degree of parliamentary representation in every election since independence. Finally, a number of partly free regimes are also characterized by party dominance. One of the big questions is whether these parties stay in power due to their use of patronage and coercion or if their long-lasting control over their polities is due to party organizational strength.

Table 1: Authoritarian Party Outcomes in Sub-Saharan Africa

Country

Freedom House 2018

Multiparty elections since?

Was authoritarian regime party-based?

Party?

Years of one-party or military-party rule1

Survives to multiparty?

Survives founding elections?

Fate of authoritarian party?

Angola

6, 6, NF

2008 (1992)

Mobilizing one-party

MPLA

1974–1992

Yes

Yes

Remains dominant

Benin

2, 2, F

1991

Mobilizing one-party

PRP

1975–1991

Yes

No

Dissolved 1992

Botswana

3, 2, F

Independence

Party-dominant

BDP

(in power 1966–)

Remains dominant

Burkina Faso

4, 3, PF

1991

Military rule

OPD formed 1989, later CDP

1987–1991

Yes

Yes

Overthrown in 2014, remains opposition party

Burundi

7, 6, NF

1993*

Military one-party

UPRONA

1966–1993

Yes

No

Remains opposition party

Cameroon

6, 6, NF

1992

Personalized one-party

RDPC/CNU

1966–1992

Yes

Yes

Remains dominant

Cape Verde

1, 1, F

1991

Mobilizing one-party

PAICV

1981 (after Cabral coup)–1990

Yes

No

Main opposition party

Cote d’Ivoire

4, 4, PF

1990*

Personalized one-party

PDCI-RDA

1960–1990

Yes

Yes

Lost power, now part of governing coalition

Djibouti

6, 5, NF

1992

Personalized one-party

RPP

1981–1992

Yes

Yes

Remains dominant

Equatorial Guinea

7, 7, NF

1993

Personalized one-party

PDGE

1987–1991

Yes

Yes

Remains dominant

Ethiopia

7, 6, NF

1994

Liberating army/ coalitional dominant party

EPRDF

Remains dominant

Gabon

7, 5, NF

1990

Personalized single-party

PDG

1968–1990

Yes

Yes

Remains dominant

Gambia

4, 5, PF

1996

Party-dominant

PPP

(in power fr 1965–1994)

Barred from elections, now part of ruling coalition

Ghana

1, 2, F

1992

No

NDC (Rawlings) formed in 92

NA

Yes

One of two major parties

Guinea

5, 5, PF

1993

Mobilizing one-party

PDG (Toure)

1960–1984

No (coup)

Dissolved 1984

Guinea-Bissau

5, 5, NF

1994–2012

Mobilizing one-party

PAIGC

1974–1994

Yes

Yes

Lost power in 1999, returned to power multiple times

Kenya

4, 4, PF

1991

Coalitional one-party

KANU

1982–1991

Yes

Yes

Lost power in 2002, now marginal

Lesotho

3, 3, PF

1993

No

-

-

-

Liberia

3, 3, PF

2005 (1997)

Party-dominant

True Whig

1878–1980

No (coup)

Marginal

Madagascar

3, 4, PF

1993

Military party-dominant

AREMA

1976–1992

Yes

No

Marginal

Malawi

3, 3, PF

1994

Personalized one-party

MCP

1966–1993

Yes

No

Significant opposition party

Mali

5, 4, PF

19922

Military one-party

UDPM

1979–1991

Yes

No

Dissolved 1991

Mauritania

6, 5, NF

1992

No

NA

-

-

Mozambique

4, 4, PF

1994

Mobilizing one-party

FRELIMO

1975–1990

Yes

Yes

Remains dominant

Namibia

2, 2, F

1994

Party-dominant

SWAPO

Party dominance

Nigeria

3, 5, PF

1999

No

NA

Rwanda

6, 6, NF

2003

Mobilizing one-party

MRND

1973–1994

Yes

No

Banned

Liberating army

RPF

1994–2003

Yes

Yes

Proto-dominant

Sao Tome & Principe

2, 2, F

1990

Mobilizing one-party

MLSTP

1975–1991

Yes

No

Remains dominant

Senegal

2, 2, F

Independence

Party-dominant

PS

(in power fr 1960–2000)

Significant opposition party

Seychelles

3, 3, PF

1993

One-party (type unclear)

SPPF

1979–1993

Yes

Yes

Fragile dominant

Sierra Leone

3, 3, PF

2002

Military one-party

APC

1978–1992

No

One of two major parties

South Africa

2,2, F

1994

Race-limited party dominant

NP

1948–1994

Yes

No

Merges into dominant ANC in 2005

Tanzania

4, 4, PF

1995

Mobilizing one-party

CCM, formerly TANU

1977–1992 (in power from 1964)

Yes

Yes

Remains dominant

Togo

4, 4, PF

1993

Personalized one-party

RPT

1979–1991

Yes

Yes

Remains dominant

Uganda

6, 4, PF

2005

“movement”/“no-party” democracy

NRM

1987–2006

Yes

Yes

Remains dominant

Zambia

4, 4, PF

1991

Mobilizing one-party

UNIP

1973–1994 (in power from 1964)

Yes

No

Marginal

Zimbabwe

6, 5, NF

Independence

Party-dominant

ZANU-PF

(in power from 1980)

Remains dominant

Race-limited party dominance

RF

1964–1979

Yes

No

Dissolved 1981

Excluded: CAR, Chad, Comoros, Republic of Congo, DRC, Eritrea, Niger, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Swaziland

(1) Years of de jure single-party rule. Some ruling parties banned opposition parties on an ad hoc basis prior to instituting one-party rule; in other countries, the declaration of one-party rule followed military coups or other events that ended multiparty electoral regimes.

(2) Mali had a brief interruption in 2012; multiparty democracy was restored with the 2013 election

The existing political science literature has tended to view party dominance as a variety of authoritarian rule, and it argues that ruling coalitions remain in power as a result of effective control over patronage, effective control over coercion, or some combination of the two (e.g., Blaydes, 2009; Greene, 2007; Slater, 2010). In Africa, many authors pointed to economic crisis in the late 1980s—and the sudden pressure that this put on authoritarian regimes’ patronage machines—as a main driver of political protest and transitions to multiparty rule (Bratton &Van de Walle, 1997). Regimes that were somewhat insulated from shortfalls in patronage, such as oil-rich Angola and Equatorial Guinea, were better able to withstand pressures for reform from domestic voices and from donors. In Arriola’s account of when and how effective opposition coalesces, he suggests that authoritarian parties survive political liberalization by using patronage and access to public resources to hold together fractious coalitions of elites (Arriola, 2013). But he then demonstrates that financial liberalization can unsettle this equilibrium: by freeing the business community from dependence on the state, financial liberalization allowed for the funneling of private resources to opposition elites and the creation of encompassing opposition coalitions (through pre-election “pay-outs”). Thus, electoral turnovers occur in countries with liberalized banking systems, like Kenya, while aspirant opposition leaders face stiffer obstacles in liberalization holdouts, like Cameroon—in contrast to Arriola’s emphasis on the centrality of patronage resources.

Ruling parties’ control over resources and use of patronage constituted a significant advantage in multiparty elections, but parties were also able to subvert elections and sustain their rule in more direct ways. Levitsky and Way point out that relatively weak connections between African countries and the West meant that democratizing pressures in Africa were weaker, and Western governments had neither the capacity nor the will to force authoritarian regimes into more than superficial reforms (Levitsky & Way, 2010). Violence and coercion have also been perennial strategies for retaining power during the multiparty period in Africa. Roessler shows that, in Kenya, fear of donor sanctions led the state to “privatize” its electoral violence providers, who were then used to displace likely opposition voters and preserve ruling party control (Roessler, 2005). In Ethiopia, the state deployed both regional and federal police in 2005 to “restore law and order” in the wake of disputed—and surprisingly competitive—elections. The crackdown initially targeted opposition parties, likely opposition supporters, and protest participants, but government forces also arrested journalists and proscribed NGOs (Abbink, 2006). Faced with a credible opposition challenger from 2000 onwards, the ruling party in Zimbabwe similarly relied on a mix of mass arrests, violence, and intimidation by informal party militia, and repression of civil society (Bratton & Masunungure, 2008; LeBas, 2006).

When opposition parties were able to overcome the obstacles placed in their path and become an electoral threat, many regimes resorted to overt or subtle forms of election-rigging (Simpser, 2013). Ruling parties use redistricting and under-provision of polling stations in order to dilute the power of urban voters, who are more likely to vote for opposition (Boone &Wahman, 2015). In Cameroon and Kenya, the manipulation of electoral boundaries and creation of new administrative units helped to preserve ruling party dominance and also tied the electoral fortunes of individual members of parliament to the party leadership, making defection less likely (Albaugh, 2013; Hassan, 2016). The preceding discussion suggests that ruling parties’ strategies and use of patronage resources can be powerful weapons against opposition, but these strategies did not always prove effective.

Party Organizations and Party Dominance

Former authoritarian ruling parties differed substantially in their organizational strength and their past strategies vis-à-vis civil society. One of the core questions is about the relationship between party structures and other societal institutions. Riedl argues that ruling parties that relied on local power brokers and pre-existing informal networks were more resilient as electoral competition became more open, while those parties that attempted to replace these networks with party structures were more likely to lose power in multiparty elections (Riedl, 2014). Other scholars have instead stressed the importance of building robust “incorporative” political party organizations, which can mobilize broader popular support and play in managing succession and other institutional crises (Morse, 2018). In Tanzania, for instance, the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) does not allow fully free and fair elections, but it benefits from grassroots organizational structures and strong intraparty procedures for selection and advancement (Morse, 2018; Smith, 2005). These ruling party organizational advantages are hard for opposition to surmount. Another strong-party authoritarian state, Ethiopia, similarly invested in building party presence at the grassroots, both by placing party loyalists in control of the pre-existing kebelle or local governance structures but also by building new mass associations (Di Nunzio, 2014; Vaughan 2011).

Where parties have not invested in building strong organizations with established intraparty decision-making procedures, they have difficulty managing one of their core challenges: leadership succession. Succession is a point of vulnerability in dominant party systems, as it often triggers elite defections and voter uncertainty that can contribute to electoral turnovers. Cheeseman points out that incumbent parties win lower proportions of the vote when they field a new candidate for the presidential or prime ministerial post, and electoral turnovers were four times as likely in these “open seat” elections than when opposition parties faced an incumbent executive (Cheeseman, 2010). These succession struggles hurt ruling parties because they often intensify factionalism and even generational divides, often triggering damaging elite defections. Kenya’s 2002 electoral turnover can be attributed in part to President Daniel arap Moi’s mishandling of the succession battle within the ruling party, which led to the defection of key elites (Anderson, 2003). In Senegal, the first electoral turnover in 2000 was preceded by factional struggles within the ruling party, which were animated in part by demands for more democratic selection of party leaders and less centralization of power within the party (Diop, Diouf, & Diaw, 2000). Finally, in an exceptionally fine-grained account of intraparty politics within the former authoritarian ruling party in Côte d’Ivoire, Toungara details how both the rise of new generational cohorts, succession politics, and the centralization of power within the party led to the weakening of intraparty cohesion (Toungara, 1995). Not only does her analysis of internal party divisions seem prescient given the subsequent split in the party, but Toungara also directs our attention to the importance of internal party procedures and formal rules. These were revised several times in the early days of multiparty politics in an attempt to hold the party together. In contrast to the examples above, leadership transitions have become routinized within CCM in Tanzania and the ruling party in Mozambique, while the much weaker ruling party in Cameroon arguably dismantled term limits in 2008 in order to allow President Paul Biya to remain in office and avoid a succession struggle. These examples suggest that succession struggles are important points at which weaker party organizations may fail, directing our attention once again to the importance of well-institutionalized party organizations in explaining continued party dominance.

In addition to investments in party structures and internal party governance, ruling parties may benefit from strong party ideology or other “non-material resources.” Levitsky and Way argue that the strength and durability of parties in Mozambique and Zimbabwe stemmed from their shared past as liberation armies, which forged a shared history, cohesion, and worldview within their ruling parties (Levitsky & Way, 2012). Lyons suggests that parties emerging from liberation armies in Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Uganda had similar advantages in terms of cohesion and experience of governance (Lyons, 2016). Where parties rely heavily on patronage rather than these non-material sources of solidarity and cohesion, Levitsky and Way suggest that it renders them susceptible to defection and collapse when these resources declined. Other historical legacies seem to similarly affect the prospects for ruling party success in the multiparty period. One of the most powerful may be the strategies used to control civil society in the authoritarian period, which either enabled or inhibited the mobilization of opposition once countries transition to multiparty rule. For instance, Tanzanian civil society struggled to establish associational autonomy from the ruling party in the 1990s, a struggle complicated by CCM’s long history of cooptation and corporatist control of mass associations (Tripp, 2000). In my own work, I argue that past authoritarian strategies of labor control either built or prevented the emergence of strong hierarchical labor movements, either providing opposition parties with strong cross-ethnic mobilizing structures or making such cross-ethnic coordination difficult (LeBas, 2011).

Thus, in order to understand why some authoritarian ruling parties retained control in the multiparty period while others lost power, we need to pay more attention to factors beyond repression and electoral manipulation. Though these tactics may keep some weak ruling parties in power, particularly where civil society is divided or weak, continued party dominance seems more likely where there exist strong party organization and the use of party strategies that make elite fragmentation and opposition challenge less likely. This section has tended to concentrate on the party-dominant systems that have liberalized but remain partly authoritarian, but many of the points made here about organizational capital and non-material legacies seem valid for full democracies like South Africa and Namibia.

The Character of African Party Organizations

Putting aside the dominant-party systems, the party landscape is quite different in other African countries. Setting aside the closed political systems ranked as “not free” by Freedom House, most multiparty regimes in Africa have experienced at least one—and often several—electoral turnovers. One might expect electoral turnover to be associated with stronger parties; otherwise, how could these actors have managed to overcome the advantages and resources available to ruling parties? As Howard and Roessler (2006) point out, defeats of authoritarian ruling parties or “liberalizing electoral outcomes” were partly due to authoritarian ruling party failures, notably an underestimation of the severity of challenges to the party’s rule, but they were determined to a much greater extent by the actions of opposition actors, particularly the ability of different opposition parties to back a single presidential candidate. These opposition electoral alliances were, however, often bargains struck by political elites, many of whom may have garnered their reputation and their campaign resources as members of the ruling party they seek to replace. These alliances and turnovers do not necessarily result in strong, well-rooted opposition party organizations.

African political parties are often quite weak from an organizational standpoint, lack stable ties with grassroots constituencies, and have little programmatic (i.e., policy-based or ideological) orientation (e.g., Van de Walle, 2007). Experts typically struggle, for instance, to locate African parties’ positions on an ideological spectrum (Kitschelt & Kselman, 2013). How do these parties run for office and get their candidates elected? A great deal of scholarship has stressed the importance of ethnic clientelism as the primary form of linkage in African polities. Many scholars point to ethnic diversity as one of the major reasons that African parties tend to be relatively weak and unable to build large constituencies (e.g., Mozaffar, Scarritt, & Galaich, 2003). According to this logic, African politicians use ethnicity and clientelism to mobilize voters, so they do not have any incentive to invest in party structures. Since parties are organized on ethnic lines, there will be many parties, regardless of majoritarian electoral rules that should restrict the number of parties. Even if a party or coalition of parties mobilizes voters across ethnic lines in one election, it will always face the threat of fragmentation into various ethnic constituencies.

Clientelism remains a core aspect of campaign strategy even in Africa’s most free and competitive party systems (e.g., Lindberg, 2003), and ethnic brokers are often used to structure clientelistic exchange at the local level. Some parties use explicitly ethnic and exclusionary language during local appeals, even if they operate as catch-all parties at the national level (e.g., Kendhammer, 2010). Yet the effect of ethnoclientelist appeals is more variable than we might expect. Clientelistic appeals are more successful in swaying voters than appeals focused on more encompassing public policy goals, but the effectiveness of these appeals is lessened outside ruling party strongholds and for individuals who are less likely to receive patronage benefits (Wantchekon, 2003). Work on vote choice suggests that voters often rely on ethnic cues when making voting decisions, but they balance these ethnic cues against candidate performance and policy concerns (e.g., Adida, Gottlieb, Kramon, & McClendon, 2017; Bratton & Kimenyi, 2008; Carlson, 2015; Conroy-Krutz, 2013). Even in Kenya, a country where politics is heavily ethnicized, ethnic appeals and grievances are not core aspects of campaign strategy (Horowitz, 2016). When they are deployed, ethnic appeals and grievances have surprisingly little effect on most voters in Kenya when they are deployed (Horowitz, 2016, Horowitz & Klaus, 2018). Looking at a range of countries, Bleck and Van de Walle’s work suggests that parties more commonly attempt to rally voter around valence appeals, or issues on which there is broad societal consensus, rather than policy platforms or issues that would divide voters (Bleck & van de Walle, 2013, 2018).

There is wide variation in how parties mobilize the vote. In his comprehensive analysis of party organization, mobilizing rhetoric, and electoral strategies, Elischer differentiates between seven types of parties, emphasizing especially the prevalence of multiethnic and catch-all parties (Elischer, 2013). As he points out, in some countries, parties are stable, well-disciplined, and show signs of growing programmaticity or policy differentiation. Ghana is a case in point. In every election since 1992, the popular vote has been largely split between two parties, each of which holds internal party primaries and wins votes across multiple ethnic groups. Observers have often pointed to the institutionalization of the parties and the modest ideological differentiation between them as the hallmark of an emerging programmatic two-party system (e.g., Whitfield, 2009). Scholars of Ghanaian parties, however, have complicated this narrative. In a study of the National Democratic Congress, Bob-Milliar suggests that intraparty factionalism is organized around personalities and informal politics, including competition for patronage resources (Bob-Milliar, 2012). His account of party nominations and the role of money bears strong resemblances to nomination battles within Nigeria’s poorly institutionalized and patrimonial parties. Recent work further suggests Ghanaian political parties also use party footsoldiers to commit electoral fraud (Bob-Milliar, 2014), imposed locally influential “big men” as candidates (Daddieh & Bob-Milliar, 2012), and used the provision of public service jobs to reward their footsoldiers, especially those in competitive districts (Driscoll, 2017). Put simply, the behavior of Ghanaian parties suggests some similarities to poorly institutionalized parties in other African countries, which might rely on patronage and pacts with local notables to mobilize voters.

Though there exist significant organizational differences across parties in Africa, both incumbent and opposition parties face similar incentives. Confronted with significant organizational constraints and a large number of poor voters, parties can continue to rely on patronage and even small handouts to mobilize voters. In this context, building grassroots party structures and instituting transparent procedures for intraparty decisions seem to be costly investments with uncertain returns. Consequently, African parties struggle to prevent candidate defections or build stable partisan identities, and parties are often volatile.

Party Volatility and Survival

African parties form and then disappear between election cycles, yielding some of the highest levels of party-system volatility in the world (Weghorst & Bernhard, 2014). Kenya serves as the prototypical example of this kind of severe weak party environment: political parties are weak coalitions of elites, who rely almost entirely on ethnic mobilization to win votes; parties change their names from election cycle to election cycle; and strategies adopted to win presidential polls often undermine party organization and the goal of winning parliamentary seats. This leads to extremely high levels of vote fragmentation at the constituency level in Kenya as well as fragmented and ineffectual legislatures. Though there is more stability in party names, Nigeria and Senegal also demonstrate high levels of party system fluidity and lack of investment in party-building. In Senegal, parties have proliferated since the first electoral turnover in 2000, and the party coalitions that contest elections are characterized by high levels of defection, reconstitution, and volatility (Kelly, 2018). In Nigeria, parties are based on fairly volatile elite pacts, and rampant floor-crossing before and after elections inhibits the development of party structures, partisan loyalties, and popular accountability (Agbaje & Adejumobi, 2006; Yinka Fashagba, 2014).

In yet another indicator of the weakness of party organization in Africa, many former authoritarian ruling parties struggle to win votes after loss of power. In other regions of the world, these parties—which political scientists term “authoritarian successor parties” (ASPs)—may lose office but are able to leverage their party’s strong grassroots structures, party loyalists, and reputation or “party brand” to win votes in future elections (Gryzmala-Busse, 2002; Loxton, 2015). In many countries, including Argentina, Taiwan, and South Korea, ASPs come back after electoral loss and regain power; in other places, they remain their countries’ most significant opposition parties.

In Africa, a handful of successful ASPs do exist, but the failure rate is high. Of the 16 African parties that are ASP “candidates” (i.e., parties that ruled during the authoritarian period and subsequently lost power), nine have either ceased to exist, won less than 5% of the popular vote in the most recent elections, and/or are in significant organizational decline (LeBas, 2018). Of the remaining seven ASPs, two are in the tiny island nations of Cape Verde and Sao Tome & Principe; only four won more than 30% of the vote in their last elections. Many of the authoritarian parties that seemed strongest prior to 1990—including the Kenya African National Union (KANU), the United National Independence Party (UNIP) in Zambia, and the Parti Socialiste (PS) in Senegal—have not been able to preserve themselves as parties after electoral loss. In large part, this is because they never had strong party structures or strong party “brands.”

Weak and fragmented political party organizations are a significant obstacle to the deepening and consolidation of democracy in Africa. If there exist a large number of parties in a system, or if parties disappear and change their names each election cycle, it can be hard for voters to assess government performance and sanction their representatives for poor performance. If parties exist only during election periods, then grassroots constituencies lack a strong mechanism for communicating with politicians and holding representatives accountable between elections. In general, weak and fragmented party organizations are associated with less popular faith in democratic institutions, lower rates of political participation, and lower rates of partisanship.

Comparing Party Organizations and Party Systems

Grassroots party organization—or what we might otherwise call “party strength”—is difficult to measure cross-nationally. In order to know whether a party has grassroots structures, these need to be observed directly, as party structures often exist on paper rather than in reality. Kuenzi and Lambright (2001) attempted to develop a number of quantitative proxies to get at African party strength or “rootedness,” such as a party’s age, but these measures do not accurately capture the organizational qualities that we care about—and that we assume shape vote choice. We also cannot draw conclusions about parties’ organization strength from electoral returns. As Bogaards (2007) points out, election results cannot helpfully distinguish between regime types: citizens may choose to freely and fairly vote for ruling parties by large margins, and closer elections can be associated with authoritarianism as well as greater democracy. The same is true for party strength. Parties can be weak but still win elections. An organizationally weak ruling party still has the opportunity to use the resources of the state, control over the media, or rigging to win elections. And a weak opposition party may be able to win by cobbling together a short-lived elite coalition with money or the promise of future rewards. Cameroon and Kenya are good examples of each of these pathways. Similarly, strong opposition party organizations can lose elections due to repression or state-sponsored violence, as in Zimbabwe, or because they face a similarly strong challenger, as in Ghana, Sierra Leone, and other highly competitive systems.

Even though it is hard to compare African party organizations, we do have other cross-national measures that do tell us a good deal about what party systems look like. Might party system features and the degree of party system fragmentation tell us something about the strength of party organizations in Africa? There has been significant attention to party systems in sub-Saharan Africa, especially in terms of categorizing party systems and examining the effects of system features on democratic accountability (e.g., Basedau, Erdmann, Lay, & Stroh, 2011; Bogaards, 2004). This literature has pointed out that modal African party system is composed of a dominant party, which are often former authoritarian ruling parties, but there are also a significant number of fluid party systems that might variously be termed inchoate, pulverized, or unstructured party systems (Erdmann & Basedau, 2008; Lindberg, 2007). Scholars disagree about the impact of ethnicity on party system fragmentation. Some arguing that ethnolinguistic fragmentation and ethnic segregation have significant yet inverse effects on party system fragmentation (Mozaffar et al., 2003), while others are skeptical that ethnicity has an independent effect on party systems (Erdmann & Basedau, 2008).

My intent in this section is more limited, since I am interested in examining the extent to which African parties are able to coordinate voters. The intuition here is that high levels of vote fragmentation inhibits the development of accountability, since parties may win with small pluralities of the vote. I draw on two measures of party system fragmentation. The effective number of electoral parties (ENEP) is the inverse of the vote share that each contending party received in an election; quite simply, it measures the degree to which voters are able to coordinate their votes. The effective number of legislative parties (ENLP) is the inverse of the mean seat share held by each party that won seats in the country’s main legislative body, or, in other words, the degree to which power is divided across parties within the legislature. ENEP is the most direct measure of how well parties are able to mobilize and discipline the voting behavior of ordinary citizens, while ENLP is strongly influenced by electoral rules (the formulas by which votes are translated into seats).

Political scientists have very clear expectations about how electoral rules should affect ENEP and ENLP. In highly majoritarian systems, like the single-member district, first-past-the-post (FPTP) system of the United States, two-party systems should emerge. In an ideal two-party system, ENEP and ENLP would both be 2.0: voters would never risk “throwing away” their votes on a third party, and, if each party received 50% of the vote, it would receive 50% of the legislative seats. In Africa, the vast majority of electoral regimes are highly majoritarian: this is true even of the proportional representation systems of Francophone Africa, and most Anglophone African countries have single-member FPTP systems that should result in the emergence of two-party systems as elections become increasingly competitive. These majoritarian electoral rules should, in theory, set ceilings on party system fragmentation in Africa. African party systems, however, are not obeying this rule. Instead, in many countries, including many FPTP systems, party system fragmentation is incredibly high when placed alongside metrics for countries with similar electoral systems in other parts of the world. In the analysis below, I draw on an original dataset of 119 parliamentary elections in 28 African countries, covering the years 1990 to 2012. Figure 1 maps ENEP (vote fragmentation) on the x-axis and ENLP (legislative fragmentation) on the y-axis for individual elections. Competitive two-party systems would generally have ENLP and ENEP values of around 2, with ENEP slightly higher than ENLP. For instance, in Ghana from 1996 to 2013, ENEP has ranged between 2.13 to 2.64 and ENLP between 1.87 and 2.16. The red line in this graph represents a proportional system in which X percent of the vote translates into X percent of seats.

Political Parties and Regime Outcomes in Multiparty AfricaClick to view larger

Figure 1: Party system fragmentation and disproportionality in 28 African countries, 1991–2012.

Source: Author’s own data.

Two patterns should stand out from this graph. First, we have a number of elections with low levels of both ENEP and ENLP, which cluster in the bottom left of the diagram. These are more party-dominant regimes, including those in which political opening is limited. Second, there are some elections that have very high levels of both ENEP and ENLP (e.g., Kenya in 2007, Zambia in 2001, Uganda in 2011, etc.). Note that several of the most fragmented party systems—Malawi in 2004 and basically every election in Benin—are excluded from this graph due to their high values on these measures. Notably, many of the most fragmented systems operate under FPTP rules, including elections in Malawi, Kenya, Zambia, and the other Anglophone countries.

Another indication that African party systems are, overall, more fragmented than we would expect is the slope of the green line. This shows that vote fragmentation is outstripping legislative fragmentation: voters seem to not be learning the incentives embedded in their electoral rules; they continue to vote for a large number of parties even though these votes are not translating into representation in parliament. These levels of party system fragmentation are exceptional when compared to other regions of the world, especially given that they are occurring in FPTP systems. In classic studies of party system fragmentation written before the mass democratization of the 1990s, none of the 48 PR or FPTP democracies in the sample had ENEP values above 3.1, and the median difference between ENEP and ENLP was 0.4 (Lijphart, 2004; Taagepera & Shugart, 1989). In Africa, once we exclude three countries with nearly perfectly PR systems (Mauritius, Namibia, and South Africa), the median difference between these two measures is 0.64; in 16 elections, it exceeds 1.0. This is unusual. I would like to argue that these levels of fragmentation are explained, in large part, by the extraordinary weakness of party organizations in Africa’s more fragmented systems. In countries with stronger and more accountable party organizations, elections become competitive without producing high levels of party system fragmentation. Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Zimbabwe all fall within this category.

Why are African party systems so fragmented? Some might suggest that ethnicity shapes party systems: ethnic groups form their own parties, which capture seats in the region where the groups live but are not competitive elsewhere. If this were the case, we would see fragmented party systems at the national level but votes would not be fragmented inside regions or individual constituencies. This is not necessarily bad for democracy. Ethnic voters vote for the parties they want, and they get some representation in parliament (e.g., Basque voters in Spain). Generally, however, this is not the case in Africa. In Malawi, Kenya, and other FPTP systems, vote fragmentation is often higher at the constituency level than it is at the national level; more problematically, it is increasing over time. In Figure 2, I show constituency-level vote fragmentation across four election cycles in Kenya. If FPTP electoral rules were “working,” most constituencies would hover between ENEP values of 1 and 2: constituencies where the ruling party was popular would approach 1 on the right side of the curve; constituencies where the opposition party was popular would approach 1 on the left side of the curve; constituencies that were perfectly competitive would be clustered in the middle at 2. What we observe instead is a large number of constituencies that are highly fragmented, and a growing number of constituencies with ENEP values above 4 by 2007. These are almost entirely unheard-of ENEP values for FPTP systems. Even in fragmented national party systems like India, vote fragmentation at the districts level is much, much lower (Chhibber & Kollman, 1998).

Voter frustration drives these kinds of voting patterns: voters simply don’t know which parties and candidates are “serious” or have a viable chance of winning; they vote against incumbents but cannot coordinate their votes behind a single challenger; this in turn fuels continued volatility. In a FPTP system, once voting hits a particular level of fragmentation, a candidate may win a parliamentary seat with less than 25% of the vote. This then prompts more small party candidates to throw their hats in the ring, resulting in still-greater vote fragmentation and (in all likelihood) more and more disillusioned voters.

Political Parties and Regime Outcomes in Multiparty AfricaClick to view larger

Figure 2: Fragmentation of the parliamentary vote at the constituency level in Kenya, 1992–2007.

Source: LeBas (2011), 242. Note that two constituencies with very high levels of fragmentation have been excluded from the 2007 plot.

Conclusions

As African countries made the turn to multiparty politics in the early 1990s, there was an expansion of interest in elections and, especially, in explaining differences in electoral turnover and political opening. Work on political parties, however, took some time to catch up. The focus on neopatrimonialism as the core characteristic of African politics—and the core impediment to democratization—has tended to direct scholarly interest toward informal institutions. It has only been more recently that there has been sustained interest in formal institutions, including political party organizations, elections campaigns, legislatures, and party systems. There is now a great deal of excellent case study work on individual parties and individual elections, but this work is often not comparative or aimed at theory-building. This means that we are still developing tools with which to understand the variation in party systems and party organizations across sub-Saharan Africa.

This article has attempted to point out several ways in which a greater focus on party organization might shed light on a variety of political outcomes, including party dominance, the continued power of clientelism in shaping vote choice, and the party system fragmentation. Are there policies that might contribute to building stronger parties and more cohesive party systems? Many scholars and practitioners have placed great faith in improving the quality and transparency of elections. Though good-quality elections are a vital ingredient for democracy and public faith in democratic institutions, improvements in this area are unlikely to affect the problems identified here. Others suggest that we may be able to change electoral rules to “engineer” more disciplined, cross-ethnic parties and thereby reduce overall levels of party system fragmentation. This kind of election engineering can work on the margins: changes in electoral rules in Benin resulted in a slow decrease in its level of party system fragmentation; party registration and vote share requirements in Nigeria have nudged party development in the direction of greater cross-ethnic and cross-regional support. Overall, however, existing electoral rules do not have a strong disciplining effect on African party systems, so it seems unrealistic to expect that institutional reforms alone will have profound future effects on party-building strategies or party system outcomes.

There are three promising routes toward stronger and more societally rooted parties. First, more competitive elections may drive political elites to invest in building electoral vehicles that can transcend local differences and nudge voters toward stable partisanship. Arguably, close elections in Ghana and Sierra Leone drove parties in both countries to deepen their programmatic tendencies and improve their internal governance. Second, as argued in LeBas (2011), strong cross-ethnic mobilizing structures can serve as the foundation for more societally rooted—and potentially societally accountable—political party organizations. In a number of sub-Saharan and north African countries, trade unions have played this role in the past, though labor market liberalization in the 1990s has significantly weakened labor movements across the continent. Rural cooperatives, residence associations, and vocational unions in urban areas might all provide organizational capital to aspirant party-builders, but coordinating the actions of these different associations will prove difficult. Many suggest that churches serve as one of the few social networks that could conceivably coordinate voters across ethnic and class lines. Finally, Kennedy Ochieng’ Opalo suggests that the route to democratic accountability might lie in the balance of power between executives and legislatures rather than in the parties themselves (Opalo, 2012). Where legislators do not depend on executives for election, they can come to serve as a check on executive abuse of power and electoral manipulation. In many established democracies, mass parties emerged out of what were initially parliamentary factions, and it is possible that a similar process could eventually unfold in Africa. Given the recent expansion of research on African political parties, there will be opportunities to investigate how these three potential pathways shape party development across Africa’s diverse set of political systems.

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Notes:

(1.) Exceptions are notable for their rarity. See Widner, 1992.

(2.) As noted in the table, a few have not quite been in power 20 years, have suffered brief interruptions, or have lost a majority in parliament while retaining control of the executive.