Political Parties in Africa: Challenges for Sustained Multiparty Democracy
Africa Regional Report
Based on research and dialogue with political parties
M. A. Mohamed Salih,
Institute of Social Studies,
University of Leiden, The Netherlands
International IDEA Research and Dialogue Coordination:
Roger Hällhag, Head of the Political Parties Programme
Per Nordlund, Senior Programme Officer
Abdalla Hamdok, Director, International IDEA Regional Office Africa
Joram Rukambe, Senior Programme Officer, IDEA Regional Office Africa
About this report
Political parties are indispensable for making democracy work and deliver. Finding the proper conditions for the better internal functioning and effective legal regulation of political parties is of key importance anywhere. This report is the result of worldwide research and dialogue with political parties. Together with national and regional research partners, International IDEA is improving insight and comparative knowledge. The purpose is to provide for constructive public debate and reform actions helping political parties to develop.
For more about the Political Parties programme, please visit www.idea.int/parties.
Political Parties in Africa: Challenges for Sustained Multiparty Democracy
© International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance 2007
African Party and Electoral Systems
African political parties originated in the non-democratic setting of colonial rule which was neither democratic nor legitimate. The post-Second World War colonial state could best be described as a reformed state that sought to include Africans in the administration of the colonies. Knowing that Africans’ agitation for independence was inevitable, the colonial powers developed this understanding into an opportunity to introduce Africans to Western political institutions, including allowing Africans under strict political surveillance to establish political parties to oversee the development of a legislature. In the urge to leave behind political institutions similar to their own, the departing colonial governments decided ‘to export to Africa their peculiar version of parliamentary government, with several parties and recognized opposition’ (Mohamed Salih 2006: 141). In some countries, it took the political elite less than a decade to move from establishing political parties to contesting elections and assuming the role of governing their countries.
In practice, due to the speed of political development, numerous ethnically-based parties emerged in opposition to other ethnic parties. Once these political parties were established, they began to assume the structures and functions of Western-style political parties. After the attainment of independence and the waning of the ‘decolonization nationalism’, the political elite abandoned the goal of national unity, the very goal that gave birth to their political ambitions, and fell back on sub-nationalist politics. In some countries (Sudan, Nigeria, Congo, Angola, Mozambique and Uganda, among others), sub-nationalism flared up in civil wars and second liberation movements—for liberation from what some marginalized and minority ethnicity political elite conceived as a form of internal colonialism imposed by the ‘ruling ethnicity’.
If African political parties initially emerged within the framework of the colonial powers’ policies, which aimed to prepare the political elite to assume power when their countries were poised to gain independence, during independence some political parties were created by military rulers (Mohamed Salih 2003: 19–27) to bring about development and national integration and to defend against what they misconstrued as the ‘threat of division’ to national integration. In other instances, civilian politicians who inherited power from the colonialists banned all existing political parties and transformed their states into one-party systems in order to achieve goals similar to those professed by the military leaders—development and national integration. As recent history and subsequent events have shown, both goals remained elusive.
Clearly, not all political parties were inclusive. Historically, political parties established by European settlers on the eve of independence (in South Africa, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe) were neither inclusive nor mass-based, and some of them were racist and deliberately excluded the African majority. However, from a formalist viewpoint, African political parties have been successful in adopting and assimilating the form and not the substantive content. Early on, as the struggle against colonial rule progressed, African political parties succeeded in cultivating not only nationalist sentiments but also the human and financial resources necessary to carry out their activities and realize their objectives. Typically, they did what Weiner says defines a successful political party: they were able to recruit and train personnel, thereby perpetuating themselves as organizations; win support (goodwill, money, votes) from the population; and maintain internal cohesion (Weiner 1967:7). This essentialist measurement of political party success is consistent with a more recent conception developed by Hague et al. (1998: 131). In their view, political parties are permanent organizations which contest elections, usually because they seek to occupy the decision-making positions of authority within the state.
Almost all African political parties are in pursuit of actualizing the four major functions of political parties in the developing countries described by Randall (Randall 1988: 183–7). First, they endow regimes with legitimacy by providing ideologies, leadership or opportunities for political participation, or a combination of all three; second, they act as a medium for political recruitment, thus creating opportunities for upward social mobility; third, they provide opportunities for the formation of coalitions of powerful political interests to sustain government (interest aggregation), have major influence on policies as a result of devising programmes, supervise policy implementation, and promote the political socialization or mobilization of people to undertake self-help activities; and, fourth, they maintain political stability in societies able to absorb increasing levels of political participation by the new social forces generated by modernization. Likewise, African political parties have become instruments or institutional mechanisms for transition to democracy. In competitive political systems, they have been able to provide, although often muted, the connection between the party system and government, and between government and society. They have become part of the electoral process, a rallying point for elite competition. Eventually, however, political parties became vehicles for the elite’s ambition to capture power, influence the legislative and executive branches, and control the administrative functions of the state bureaucracy through the political executive.
Section 4.2 below deals with African party systems and typologies. The rest of this report will attempt to explore the nature of African political parties and whether, once founded and having contested elections, they assimilate some of the institutional norms and behaviour expected of them.
4.2 African party systems
In the introduction to this chapter we argued that political parties are important because they play a pivotal role in democratic societies (representation, elite recruitment, aggregation of interests, socialization, national integration, etc.). Because parties compete with each other for the public’s votes, and because they should adhere to the rules of the electoral game, they enter into complex relations with their internal and external environment and with other political parties. The alliances, coalitions, negotiations and debates in which political parties are engaged are crucial aspects of political life, the structure of the governing polity, and the measure of political stability (or instability).
In practice, therefore, party systems comprise the networks and relations whose classification has not changed much since the concept entered social science over 50 years ago. While party competition for votes could be regulated, for instance, by the electoral law, in competitive political systems the number of parties in parliament will not be known for sure until the elections are contested, votes have been counted and the winners have been declared. The number of political parties that form government is very important for distinguishing between different types of party system, whether ‘one-party’, ‘two-party’, ‘dominant-party’ or ‘multiparty’ systems. The number of political parties is not only important in itself, but also because it reflects the socio-political contexts and the extent of societal divisions and regional differences.
In chapter 3, we alluded to the ethnic nature of African political parties and the significant role ethnicity plays in the formation of political parties, the support they receive, and voter behaviour. Their ethnic nature is an important aspect in, for instance, determining the number of parties that win seats in the parliament and their relative sizes. Ethnicity and religion could also determine political party relations, the formation of governments, and to some extent the stability (or otherwise) of government – in particular determining whether parties’ size gives them the prospect of winning, or at least sharing, government power.
It is within this perspective that we recognize the presence of four African party systems, as already mentioned—one-party systems, two-party systems, dominant-party systems and multiparty systems. We deal with these in turn.
4.2.1 One-party systems
Historically, African one-party systems are associated with the late 1960s until the early 1990s when at least four-fifths of the continent was ruled by authoritarian regimes (one-party states, military regimes, military socialist regimes and civil dictatorships). Heywood (2002: 259–60) has made the point that ‘one-party system’ is a contradiction in terms, since ‘system’ implies interaction among a number of entities. The term is nevertheless helpful in distinguishing between political systems in which a single party enjoys the monopoly of power through the exclusion of all other parties (by political or constitutional means) and those that are characterized by a competitive struggle between a number of parties. Because monopolistic parties effectively function as permanent governments, with no mechanism (short of a coup or revolution) through which they can be removed from power, they invariably develop an entrenched relationship with the state machine. This allows such states to be classified as ‘one-party states’, their machinery being seen as a fused ‘party–state’ apparatus.
Two types of single-party systems had developed in Africa. Some countries became de jure single-party states, that is, they changed their constitutions so that only one political party was allowed in the country. Using Heywood’s classification, these ‘were found in state socialist regimes where “ruling” communist parties have directed and controlled virtually all the institutions and aspects of society. Such parties are subject to strict ideological discipline, in accordance with the tenets of Marxism-Leninism, and they have highly structured internal organizations in line with the principles of democratic centralism’ (Heywood 2002: 258–66). These are cadre parties in the sense that membership is restricted on political and ideological grounds. Examples of de jure one-party states were Ethiopia with the Ethiopian Workers Party (WPE), Angola with the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (Movimento Popular de Liberaço de Angola, MPLA), Mozambique with the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (Frente de Libertação de Moçambique, Frelimo), and Sudan with the Sudanese Socialist Union (SSU), prior to their transition to various forms of multiparty democracy.
Other African countries became de facto single-party states. In these countries the constitution was not changed to mandate one party, but in reality the ruling parties in these countries gained and kept a monopoly on power, dominating all branches of government. According to Heywood, one-party systems were associated with anticolonial nationalism and state consolidation in the developing world. In Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, for example, the ‘ruling’ party developed out of an independence movement that proclaimed the overriding need for nation-building and economic development. In Zimbabwe, one-party rule emerged between 1987 and 1989 (seven years after independence) when the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) forced the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) into a merger through violence and intimidation (Nordlund 1996: 154).
After a 30-year liberation struggle for independence that ended in 1991, Eritreans voted overwhelmingly for independence in a 1993 referendum under the leadership of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). The People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), which grew out of the EPLF, was established and designated as the only legal party despite the fact that in January 2002 the Transitional National Assembly accepted the principle of political pluralism. However, up to now, the Transitional National Assembly has not approved the registration of any political party. Eritrea’s PFDJ therefore falls into the category of de facto single political parties. As in countries which had single political parties earlier, President Isaias Afworki (president since 8 June 1993, and leader of the EPLF since 1965) is the chief of state and head of government as well as head of the State Council and National Assembly, and indeed the secretary general of the PFDJ, the sole political party.
There is no separation of power here. The PFDJ appoints the political executive, controls the judiciary, and scrutinizes who should become a party candidate and represent the political party in the rubber-stamp legislature. Eritrea under the PFDJ is an archetype of Africa’s single-party states. Others were demolished by the democratization process, which ensued during the late 1980s and culminated in the democratic resurgence which swept through the continent. Little wonder then that journalists, academics, civil society organizations, heavily armed military resistance and political opponents have confronted the Eritrean regime and the governing political party. Whether and when Eritrea will become a multiparty system is difficult to tell, and is largely contingent on the internal and external contexts within which the democratization struggle is launched.
4.2.2 Two-party systems
A two-party system is duopolistic in that two ‘major’ parties that have a roughly equal prospect of winning government power dominate it. In its classical form, a two-party system can be identified by three criteria.
1. Although a number of ‘minor’ parties may exist, only two parties enjoy sufficient electoral and legislative strength to have a realistic prospect of winning government power.
2. The larger party is able to rule alone (usually on the basis of a legislative majority); the other provides the opposition.
3. Power alternates between these parties; both are ‘electable’, the opposition serving as a ‘government in the wings’.
Two-party systems display a periodic tendency towards adversarial politics (see Heywood 2002: 326). This is reflected in ideological polarization and an emphasis on conflict and argument rather than consensus and compromise. It is also noted that such systems sometimes operate through coalitions including smaller parties that are specifically designed to exclude larger parties from government. (In similar vein, Sartori (1976) distinguishes between two types of multiparty system, which he termed the moderate and polarized pluralist systems. In this categorization moderate pluralism exists in countries where ideological differences between major parties are slight, and where there is a general inclination to form coalitions and move towards the middle ground. This classification is apparently relevant to African countries with alarge number of ethnically-based parties.)
Table 4.1: African two-party systems
Source: Mohamed Salih, M. A., African Political Parties: Evolution, Institutionalization and Governance (London: Pluto Press, 2003).
At least five observations can be teased out of Table 4.1.
1. Not all two-party systems have emerged from a truly democratic experience. The best example here is Zimbabwe, where the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), which is known for its capacity for electoral fraud, intimidation of voters and outright intimidation and imprisonment of political opponents, has kept the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) at bay for too long.
2. The two-party system is not immune from engendering severe conflicts leading to state collapse, particularly in situations where the ethnic advantage of one political party vis-à-vis the other may lead to the opposition becoming impatient and resorting to the military as a way of advancing civilian politics. The case of Sierra Leone speaks volumes to this possibility.
3. Two-party systems are indicative of highly polarized ideological differences which in some cases undermine the smaller political parties; larger parties use (or rather abuse) them for their own political convenience. Kenya’s National Rainbow Coalition and Kenya African National Union (KANU) offer a glaring example of this. However, although the future of the National Rainbow Coalition is uncertain, given the current internal squabbles which have marred the relationship between some of its coalition partners, the likelihood that it will maintain some strong presence in Kenyan politics cannot be ruled out.
4. It is not inevitable that two-party systems develop into a multiparty system or a dominant-party system. For example, following the first multiparty democracy elections in Mozambique, Frelimo gained and the Mozambican National Resistance (Resistência Nacional Moçambicana, Renamo), which hinted at the possibility that the country was developing in the direction of a two-party system. However, following elections, Frelimo won votes and Renamo lost votes, and this tilted the balance towards a dominant-party system (the subject of the next subsection).
5. Two-party systems are not in themselves guarantors of political stability or otherwise, despite the fact that they are signifiers of polarized pluralism. Consider, for example, the political stability and almost near-perfect transition in Benin, as contrasted with the political turmoil of pre-civil war Sierra Leone and the current brutal and unwelcome development in Zimbabwe. The development of two-party systems in Africa could be welcome, particularly from a national integration viewpoint. Multiparty system states are more prone to ethnic and regional conflicts whereby each group creates its own political parties, leading to fragile coalition politics at best and political instability at worst. There is also the possibility that smaller political parties, although they provide a mechanism for electoral participation, will be marginalized by larger political parties, contributing to distrust of politics and politicians in the event of massive ‘floor-crossing’.
4.2.3 Dominant-party systems
In most of the literature, dominant-party systems should not be confused with one-party systems, although they may at times exhibit similar characteristics. A dominant-party system is competitive in the sense that a number of parties compete for power in regular and popular elections, but is dominated by a single major party that consequently enjoys prolonged periods in power. In Africa, there are dominant-party systems in 16 countries (see Table 4.2).
Table 4.2: Dominant-party systems and the major political parties
Source: Mohamed Salih, African Political Parties: Evolution, Institutionalization and Governance
(London: Pluto Press, 2003).
At face value, a relatively large number of dominant parties emerged in Africa a few years after the democratization process had been unleashed. Four challenges to democracy from dominant-party systems could be teased out because:
- they impede competitive politics, which contributes to political apathy and low voter turnout, as has been demonstrated in the last elections in South Africa, Mozambique, Mali and Senegal;
- dominant parties dominate the legislature and could monopolize the lawmaking process to promote the predominant party’s economic and social interests;
- governments formed under the system are less accountable to the legislature, which they dominate, and the opposition, which is too small to be effective; and
- they encourage government to develop the arrogance of power and become irresponsive to citizen demands.
What needed to be done is explained by our colleague Renske Doorenspleet: ‘This phenomenon of dominant one-party systems should be taken into account more explicitly. New classifications of party systems should be developed in which this new type is included and in which the new type with its special characteristics is investigated’ (Doorenspleet 1999: 177). This work is vitally important for the democratic future of these countries, particularly if competitive politics is to flourish and political parties are to play their pivotal democratic role in governance.
4.2.4 Multiparty systems
A multiparty system is characterized by competition between more than two parties, thus reducing the chances of single-party government and increasing the likelihood of coalitions. However, it is difficult to define multiparty systems in terms of the number of parties being explained by reference to the class nature of party support (party conflict being seen, ultimately, as a reflection of the class struggle), or as a consequence of party democratization and the influence of ideologically committed grass-roots activists.
One problem with the two-party system is that two evenly matched parties are encouraged to compete for votes by outdoing each other’s electoral promises, perhaps causing spiralling public spending and fuelling inflation. This amounts to irresponsible party government, in that parties come to power on the basis of election manifestos that they have no capacity to fulfil. A final weakness of two-party systems is the obvious restrictions they impose in terms of electoral and ideological choice. While a choice between just two programmes of government was perhaps sufficient in an era of partisan alignment and class solidarity, it has become quite inadequate in a period of greater individualism and social diversity.
Polarized pluralism, by contrast, exists when more marked ideological differences separate major parties, some of which adopt an anti-system stance. The strength of multiparty systems is that they create internal checks and balances within government and exhibit a bias in favour of debate, conciliation and compromise. The process of coalition formation and the dynamics of coalition maintenance ensure a broad responsiveness to voter demands that cannot but take account of competing views and contending interests. On the other hand, coalition governments may be fractured and unstable, paying greater attention to squabbles among coalition partners than to the business of government. We deal with these aspects of polarized pluralism in section 4.5 on party coalitions.
Table 4.3: African multiparty systems
Source: Mohamed Salih, M. A., African Democracies and African Politics (London: Pluto Press, 2001).
4.3 The relationship between the electoral system and the party
Elections, electoral systems and the way in which they interrelate are important element of any democracy, nascent or mature. Democracy is an ‘institutional arrangement’, an instrument for actualizing peoples’ democratic preferences in the form of governments controlled by the victorious political party or parties, and a means of competitive politics to fill public offices (in the legislature and the political executive) whereby the electorates decide on who should represent them, rule, or make policies and take decisions that organize and impact on public affairs. Elections, therefore, are an important instrument in the democratic process. In Heywood’s words, ‘the conventional view is that elections are a mechanism through which politicians can be called to account and forced to introduce policies that somehow reflect public opinion’ (Heywood 2002: 230). Quoting Ginsberg, he also laments that ‘elections are means through which governments and political elites can exercise control over their populations, making them more quiescent, malleable and, ultimately governable’ (Heywood 2002: 230).
Without elaborating further on these important aspects, elections have at least seven major functions:
- recruiting politicians;
- making governments;
- providing representation;
- influencing policy;
- educating voters;
- building legitimacy; and
- strengthening elites.
Essentially, an election is not an event. It is a process which influences how a democratic polity and political party politics unfold following the election, including the type of government formed (majority, minority, coalition etc.). Because elections are contested by political parties, political organizations and individuals (also called independent candidates), there will always be a conjuncture between party systems and electoral systems.
An electoral system consists of a set of rules that govern the conduct of elections. In general, African electoral systems can be divided into majoritarian and proportional. Majoritarian systems also called plurality/majority systems. However, as we will illustrate in what follows, in reality these systems are more complex than simple encyclopaedic definitions. These are systems in which larger parties typically win a share of seats in parliament that is out of proportion to the share of votes they gain in the election. Proportional electoral systems secure a more equitable relationship between the number of seats won and the number of votes gained in the election. In Africa, the proportional electoral systems defy the conventional wisdom that proportional representation (PR) makes dominant-party rule less likely, and that PR systems are often associated with multiparty systems and coalition governments (e.g. South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia and Rwanda). Table 4.4 shows different types of electoral system in 51 African states.
As Table 4.4 shows, there are two dominant electoral systems in Africa—List proportional representation (List PR) and First Past The Post (FPTP)—with the Two-Round System (TRS) and the Parallel System (both List PR and FPTP or List Party Block Vote (PBV)) in the third place and fourth places, respectively. List PR is prominent in 15 countries, FPTP in 14 countries, TRS in nine and the Parallel
System in four countries. Only one African country (Lesotho) has adopted the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system.
Apart from providing a set of rules for conducting elections, electoral systems establish three elements of the electoral process: (a) their scope, i.e. what offices are elected (in particular we referred earlier to the legislature and political executive); (b) the franchise, that is, who can vote; and (c) turnout—who actually votes. There are regulations in all the 51 African countries presented in Table 4.4 which regulate these aspects in order to ensure that the claims to electoral victories which will eventually allow the winning party or parties to form a government are legitimate.