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Africa: Variations of Democracy

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Mar 25, 2011 (110325)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

Asking whether North Africa's pro-democracy movements will find an echo in sub-Saharan Africa is both an inevitable and an unanswerable question. But given the wide diversity of national contexts, it is essential also to raise doubts about some of the generalizations that may emerge in attempts to answer it. Critically, one must also stress that many sub-Saharan African countries have in fact made significant advances toward functioning democracies. In public opinion surveys by Afrobarometer, for example, including data from 2008 on 19 African countries, 29% of respondents rated their own country a "full democracy," 30% their country as a democracy "with minor problems," 25% a democracy "with major problems," and only 11% not a democracy at all or "don't know."

These surveys, carried out in four rounds from 1999 through 2008, include a total of 20 countries, with 19 being surveyed in the most recent round. The 19 countries are Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia. Zimbabwe was also surveyed in previous rounds, most recently in 2005, but not in 2008.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains selected excerpts from two recent Afrobarometer reports. Note that these are brief excerpts only. The full papers in pdf format, with tables, graphs, methodological discussion, and references, along with a wide range of additional working papers and briefing papers are available on the Afrobarometer website (

A detailed compendium of survey results from Round 4 in 2008 can be found in Afrobarometer Working Paper No. 108, entitled "The Quality of Democracy and Governance in Africa: New Results from Afrobarometer Round 4."

For two other AfricaFocus Bulletins posted today on related themes, see

Africa: Democracy and Despots
Africa: The Winds of Change

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

Neither Consolidating Nor Fully Democratic: The Evolution of African Political Regimes, 1999-2008

Afrobarometer Briefing Paper No. 67

May 2009

[The Afrobarometer is a joint enterprise of the Center for Democratic Development (CDD-Ghana), the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa) and the Institute for Empirical Research in Political Economy (IREEP, Benin). Fieldwork, data entry, preliminary analysis, and the dissemination of survey results are conducted by National Partner organizations in each African country. Michigan State University and the University of Cape Town provide technical and advisory support services.]

[This Briefing Paper was prepared by Michael Bratton of Michigan State University ( and Robert Mattes of the University of Cape Town (]

Executive Summary

The central questions addressed in this bulletin concern the fate of democracy, especially as seen by Africans themselves. Do they say they want democracy, a preference that we call the popular demand for democracy? And do they think they are getting it, that is, do they perceive that their leaders are providing a supply of democracy? Moreover, if there is evidence of democratic development in Africa, to what extent are democratic regimes established, stable, or consolidated? We examine whether or not various countries are approaching a stable equilibrium between demand and supply - that is, whether they are consolidating - and if so, whether they are doing so as democracies at high levels of both demand and supply, as autocracies at low levels of both, or as hybrid regimes at intermediate levels.

Afrobarometer Round 4 conducted public attitude surveys in 19 countries during 2008. We also report some results from a 2005 survey in Zimbabwe (since a new survey was not possible during 2008). The key findings are summarized below, and described in full in the text that follows.

Demand for Democracy

Our indicator of demand for democracy combines both those who say they support democracy as the best system of government, and those who explicitly reject three authoritarian alternatives: military rule, one-party rule, and strongman presidential rule.

We find that:

  • Overall, across 19 countries in 2008, support for democracy stands at 70 percent, but there is wide variability, from 39 percent in Madagascar, to 85 percent in Botswana.
  • On average, 75 percent reject military rule, 73 percent reject a one-party system, and 79 percent reject strongman rule.
  • However, only 57 percent of respondents reject all three alternatives to democracy, and fewer than half (45 percent) fully demand democracy by both rejecting the three alternatives and explicitly supporting democracy.


Supply of Democracy

Our indicator of the perceived supply of democracy combines those who say that they think their country is a democracy (i.e., those who say their country is either fully democratic, or a democracy with only minor problems), with those who say they are either "fairly" or "very satisfied" with "the way democracy works" in their country. We find that:

  • Across 19 countries in 2008, an average of 59 percent of all Africans interviewed believed that they lived in a full or almost full democracy, ranging from 91 percent of Batswana to a mere 14 percent of Zimbabweans (in 2005).
  • Satisfaction with democracy is lower, averaging 49 percent across 19 countries.
  • The perceived supply of democracy, i.e., those who both believe that their country is a democracy, and are fairly satisfied with it, averages 41 percent across 19 countries.
  • Across the 11 countries that we can track since 1999, satisfaction with democracy has declined by 5 percentage points, from 61 percent circa 1999 to 56 percent in 2008, while the perceived extent of democracy has risen by a similar margin, from 58 to 63 percent.


In sum, there is both good and bad news. The good news is that democratic attitudes are generally on the rise among the African populations we have surveyed. If sustained, this up-tick is a promising portent for further democratization. But the bad news is that fewer than half of all Africans interviewed demand democracy and perceive its supply when these indicators are measured rigorously. As such, the project of democracy building still has a long way to go.



Almost 20 years have passed since the Berlin Wall came down, an event that was followed in sub-Saharan Africa by pressures for political liberalization and by transitions to multiparty rule. In addition, more than 10 years have elapsed since the Afrobarometer embarked on a pioneering effort (starting in Ghana in July 1999) to conduct surveys of public opinion about these changes. As democratic experiments have spread across the sub-continent, the Afrobarometer Network - an international consortium of researchers - has since accumulated interviews with over 105,000 Africans in four rounds of surveys in up to 20 countries.

The time is ripe, therefore, to assess the current state of political development in these countries and to track changes in public attitudes that have occurred over the past decade (1999-2008).


The Perceived Supply of Democracy

On the supply side, do ordinary people think that they are getting democracy? One way to generate an answer is to ask, "how much of a democracy is (this country) today?" Response categories for this item range on a four-point scale from "a full democracy," though "a democracy with minor problems" and "a democracy with major problems," to "not a democracy."

Skeptics might again argue that non-literate people in the developing world are insufficiently knowledgeable or experienced about democracy to offer meaningful responses. But, in 2005, fewer than 10 percent of respondents who had an opinion on the extent of democracy were unable to define the term. And, while this uninformed group was slightly more prone to innocently perceive "a full democracy," their views on the extent of democracy otherwise resembled the opinions of those who better understood the nature of the regime.


By 2008, an average of 59 percent of all Africans interviewed considered that they lived in a full or almost full democracy. The range of responses in Figure 5 is wider for the perceived extent of democracy than for any other item of opinion considered here. While the citizens of Botswana again lead the pack (at 91 percent, with Ghanaians close behind at 83 percent), Zimbabweans trail far below (at a dismal 14 percent in 2005). With regard to the perceived extent of democracy, countries can be roughly divided into three equal-sized groups:

(a) in six countries (from Botswana to Cape Verde), at least seven out of ten citizens think they have extensive democracy;

(b) in seven other countries (from Zambia to Burkina Faso) citizens see moderate levels of democratic development; and

(c) and in a last group of seven countries (from South Africa to Zimbabwe), fewer than half think they live in a full or almost full democracy.

... It is within this last group that we discern democracies at risk, for example in Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Madagascar and Zimbabwe.


Diverse Trajectories

A major result of this analysis is that African political regimes are diverse along at least two dimensions. With regard to the nature of the regime, some are nearly democratic, a few seem autocratic (at least in the eyes of their citizenry), while most fall into an intermediate hybrid category. A common African regime type is electoral democracy, meaning democratic in institutional form (e.g. elections), but lacking some essential attribute of rights or accountability. With regard to the likelihood of change, some regimes - including some hybrids - have attained a stable equilibrium, but more are unconsolidated.


Voting Intentions in Africa: Ethnic, Economic or Partisan?

by Michael Bratton, Ravi Bhavnani and Tse-Hsin Chen

Afrobarometer Working Paper No. 127

January 2011


This paper offers a first comprehensive account of popular voting intentions in Africa's new electoral democracies. With reference to comparative aggregate and survey data from 16 countries, we show that competitive elections in Africa are more than mere ethnic censuses or simple economic referenda. Instead, Africans engage in both ethnic and economic voting. Not surprisingly, people who belong to the ethnic group in power intend to support the ruling party, in contrast to those who feel a sense of discrimination against their cultural group. But, to an even greater extent, would-be voters in Africa consider policy performance, especially the government's perceived handling of unemployment, inflation, and income distribution. Moreover, a full account of the intention to vote in Africa also requires recognition that citizens are motivated--sincerely or strategically--by partisan considerations; they vote for established ruling parties because they expect that incumbents will win. We show that voters attempt to associate themselves with prospective winners because they wish to gain access to patronage benefits and to avoid retribution after the election. These dynamics are most evident in African countries where dominant parties restrict the range of electoral choice.


When Africans consider their voting choices, do they do so on ethnic or economic grounds? On one hand, advocates of identity voting draw attention to a citizen's sense of belonging to cultural collectivities--like ethnic and linguistic groups--that aggregate individual choices into blocs of votes. On the other hand, backers of interest-based accounts of voting argue that each citizen appraises the performance of government and uses the opportunity of periodic elections to punish or reward incumbents.

In new electoral democracies in the developing world, and especially in the multi-ethnic societies of sub- Saharan Africa, voting motivations may not be quite so clear-cut. For if Africans vote ethnically, why do so many African presidents hail from minority ethnic groups? And if Africans vote economically, why are incumbents routinely re-elected even when economic conditions are bad? The literature on voting behavior in Africa is therefore divided: some country studies report that ethnic attachments trump economic calculations, whereas, in other analyses, popular evaluations of government performance overshadow attachments to language and tribe. A definitive arbitration of this debate is long overdue.

We present systematic, cross-national evidence to the effect that economic interests play a larger role in African elections than has hitherto been recognized. We also consider alternative formulations. Perhaps voting intentions in new African democracies are driven by other factors, such as the partisan calculations made by clients in search of patronage. If so, then voters will seek to gain access to the positive benefits that ruling parties can bestow and to avoid the negative sanctions that can follow from supporting opposition groups. When voters express close identification with the ruling party, they may be either sincere or strategic. But, either way, they epitomize a widespread popular recognition that incumbents at the helm of dominant parties are most likely to win in African elections.


A Reinterpretation

On the basis of cross-national research in Africa, we argue that the distinction between ethnic and economic voting is overdrawn. Based on data from Zambia and Kenya, some analysts argue that the structure of ethnic groups in society is a more formative influence on vote choice than the economic calculations of individuals (Posner and Simon 2002; Erdmann 2007; Author 2008). Using evidence from Ghana, others have countered that popular evaluations of government performance trump the pervasive tugs of language and tribe (Jeffries 1998; Bawumia 1998; Youde 2005; Fridy 2007; Lindberg and Morrison 2008). But the only cross-national voting studies yet completed in Africa do not reach agreement about the relative importance of group loyalty (Norris and Mattes 2003) or instrumental rationality (Author et al. 2005). As stated earlier, this debate requires adjudication, given that both patterns of voting behavior are evident in African elections. These complex contests cannot be reduced to a one-dimensional construct, for example as an ethnic census or an economic referendum. It remains to be seen whether ethnic or economic considerations--or some other influences--are paramount in driving a multivariate explanation. But, at minimum, we argue that African

voting intentions do not adhere to media stereotypes of Africans as exclusively ethnic voters nor to the popular assumption that elections always and everywhere are about "the economy, stupid."

The present study attempts such a resolution by departing from previous efforts in several important ways.

First, the scope of the study is not limited to one election in one country, which has been a hallmark of the literature on Africa to date. Instead, we employ Afrobarometer Round 3, a large cross-national set of survey data with identical indicators for 23,039 adult citizens in 16 countries. ...

Second, the object of explanation is a citizen's intended vote choice rather than proxies like presidential popularity, which were too often used in prior research. The main advantage is that voting intentions are a better guide to actual voting behaviour though, obviously, the reliability of this indicator decreases with temporal distance from the next election.

Third, we recognize that rival concepts--ethnic identity and economic interest--are multi-dimensional and that their various aspects may have differential explanatory power. We therefore seek to capture the richness of each concept by measuring several facets with alternative indicators. By decomposing the broad concepts of ethnic identity and economic interest, we hope to cast light on the mechanisms that lead our respondents to arrive at an intended vote choice.

Fourth, we propose a multi-level explanatory model in a bid to account for variance in intended voting behavior across countries as well as among individuals. Guided by prevailing theoretical debates, we explore the influence of relevant social, economic and political differences at the country level.

Finally, we emphasize that the intention to vote among Africans may be driven by political considerations rather than by ethnic or economic factors. Analysts have long recognized that partisan identification--a voter's underlying allegiance to a political party--explains a great deal about individual attitudes and actions (Campbell et al. 1960; see also Shively, 1980; Lewis-Beck et al 2008b). Indeed, recent studies of electoral participation in African countries have confirmed the central mobilizing role of political parties (Author 1999; Kuenzi and Lambright 2007) and the stability of partisan alignments (Lindberg and Morrison 2005; Young 2009).

Thus, one would also expect voters to plan to vote for the party to which they say they feel closest. To avoid the obvious circularity in this relationship, we refine the concept of partisan identification in this study by distinguishing sincere and strategic voting. Sincere partisans are individuals who intend to vote for a party out of deep attachment or ingrained habit; they express partisan loyalty without reference (sometimes even in direct contradiction) to the party's actual performance. We expect to find many such "uncritical citizens" among the adherents of the long-standing ruling groups in former one-party African regimes (Chaligha 2002; Mattes and Shenga 2007).

Alternatively, we contend that the structure of incentives in Africa's neopatrimonial regimes (Clapham 1982; Nugent 1995; Author 1997; Wantchekon 2003; Kitschelt and Wilkinson 2007; Erdmann and Engel 2007) also gives rise to strategic voting. In Africa's "winner take all" politics--where electoral victory conveys political control over state-dominated economies--the credibility of patronage parties depends on their ability to actually attain, hold, and exercise power. Since opposition parties are novel and weak, an incumbent ruling party can make the most credible patronage commitments. Under these circumstances, an individual's expressed preference of "closeness" to a ruling party may therefore be deeply instrumental, reflecting a calculation that incumbents will routinely win. Regardless of real preferences, strategic partisans will also associate themselves with the ruling party in the hope that they will be rewarded--or at least not punished --after the election.



This article confirms that conventional theories of voting behavior provide leverage as starting points for understanding the outcomes of multiparty elections in sub-Saharan Africa. Using survey and aggregate data gleaned from more than 23,000 would-be voters in 16 African countries in 2005, we show that, to measurable degrees, Africans seek to engage in both ethnic and economic voting.

Thus elections in Africa are much more than mere ethnic censuses or straightforward economic referenda. The complexity of voting motivations is evidenced by unforeseen facts: contra the stereotype of ethnic voting, many African heads of government hail from secondary or minority ethnic groups; and converse to the economic voting thesis, incumbent presidents often gain reelection despite the poor performance of African economies. It is therefore necessary to move beyond confirmatory results about single-factor explanations in order to make several original claims.

First, our systematic cross-national test of the relative importance of different voting rationales yields an unexpected result. Regardless of the commonplace trope that Africans voters are motivated mainly by ethnic solidarities, we find that economic interests are uppermost. Without denying that ethnic sentiments play a role in shaping vote choice, we note that rational calculations about material welfare are apparently at the forefront of voters' minds. We take this observation as a positive sign that African politicians cannot count indefinitely on cultural appeals to kith and kin but, in order to be consistently re-elected, must also establish a track record of social and economic delivery.

Second, by distinguishing various dimensions of economic interest and ethnic identity, we cast light on the mechanisms that drive the formation of voting preferences.

As for economic interests, we note that voter expectations about the future health of the economy outweigh any other past, present or future evaluation, especially of personal living standards. Thus, while we confirm that Africans resemble the sociotropic voters so common in other parts of the world, we also insist that they think about the economy more like future-oriented "bankers" than backward-looking "peasants." Of course, one wonders whether popular expectations about Africa's economic future are based as much on hope as on realism. Offsetting this concern, however, we note that, for the Africans we interviewed, rational assessment of actual government performance at macroeconomic policy management is the principal economic influence on intended vote choice.

As for ethnic identity, an individual's membership in the largest ethnic group and distrust of ethnic strangers play almost no role in shaping a vote for the political status quo. Instead, an individual's membership in the ethnic group that currently holds political power is a powerful factor explaining a vote for the ruling party.

Conversely, an intention vote for the opposition is driven mainly by whether an individual feels a collective sense of ethnic discrimination. In this regard, the principal line of ethnic cleavage in the context of electoral competition is whether individuals are "insiders" or "outsiders" to the prevailing distribution of political power.

Third, we cannot discount an individual's partisan attachments. But we take a distinctly instrumental interpretation of overt expressions of party identification. Because the distribution of development resources in a winner-take-all system depends upon political connections, voters have a strong incentive to declare fealty to the incumbent, including by saying they will vote for him. Their hope is that, by overtly (but not necessarily sincerely) demonstrating political loyalty, material rewards will follow. Especially where one party is dominant and opposition parties are weak--the only contextual factor that we have found to be important--it is simply too risky to come out openly and express an intention to vote against an incumbent.

Fourth, the incentives for reelecting incumbents turn out to be positive as well as negative. On the positive side, the perception that incumbent politicians are able to make credible campaign promises to deliver patronage after elections leads to a measurable increase in ruling party support. On the negative side, some would-be voters state an intention to back the ruling party because they worry about harmful repercussions from agents of the state. For reasons of self-protection, some unknown but probably substantial proportion of these citizens therefore follows through with actual votes for the party in power.

Fifth and finally, we trace voting intentions to a feature of African political institutions at the country level. Our multi-level model suggests that African citizens are much more likely to vote for incumbents in places where there is a low effective number of parliamentary parties, that is, where dominant parties continue to stride the political stage. In places with weak oppositions -- like, inter alia, Tanzania, Namibia, Mozambique, and even Botswana and South Africa -- voters have a restricted range of political choice; they essentially face the narrow option of endorsing or rejecting some form of de facto single party rule. It is for this reason that instrumental expressions of partisanship are so widespread among African electorates. Thus, even as African voters increasingly seek to hold political leaders accountable for economic performance, they encounter the institutional constraints of party systems inherited from a postcolonial past.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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