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New book examines democracy in Africa

A wave of democratization swept over the African continent in the 1990s. Has it made a difference in the welfare of individuals in sub-Saharan African nations? And why hasn’t the shift to multiparty elections led to profound change in African governance, given the region’s rapidly changing economics and urbanization?

In the first comprehensive comparative analysis of African elections in the last quarter century, Cornell political scientist Nicolas van de Walle and co-author Jaimie Bleck, M.A. ’08, Ph.D. ’11, offer in-depth answers in “Electoral Politics in Africa Since 1990: Continuity in Change.”

They describe a continent with a “paradoxical combination of change and continuity” in which almost all of the region’s 49 countries have institutionalized multiparty electoral politics, yet none are in the process of consolidating democracy. The authors examined more than 500 national elections in Africa since 1990 “to demystify and normalize African elections with the tools and analytical categories of comparative politics,” they write, rather than the usual lens of “the darker or more exotic dimensions of African elections, from a focus on ethnic politics to the continuing role of traditional authorities, vote buying, clientelism and electoral violence … . Ethnic identity is never the only factor shaping the party system or shaping voter decisions, and in a number of countries, it is mostly irrelevant.”

“One of the book’s most surprising findings is how much many African elections resemble American elections, from the nature of campaigning, to the rhetoric that candidates employ,” van de Walle said.

The authors deliberately refer to African elections as “multiparty” rather than “democratic” because of issues with many elections, noted van de Walle, the Maxwell M. Upson Professor of Government in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Elections offer the possibility of significant political change, the authors note, but democracies and elections are influenced by numerous variables, including socioeconomic factors and the international environment.

Nor are the changes resulting from electoral moments necessarily positive, they note. During the period they researched, electoral politics have been institutionalized with relatively little democratic deepening. The authors argue there is a “striking and paradoxical disjuncture between the great changes in African society and the relative stagnation in its politics,” and their finding that holding regular multiparty elections does not necessarily promote the stability or deepening of democracy should prompt a reconsideration of theories about democratic consolidation, they said.

“Politicians and political parties seem stuck in the old ways of doing things, even as African civil society and media are changing really fast and popular expectations are rising for a different kind of politics,” said van de Walle.

The authors note that every single country in the region chose to maintain presidentialism rather than shift to a parliamentary government. With a few exceptions, the same political class that dominated national politics before transitions to democracy is still in power. One reason is that the centralization of power in the executive confers benefits to sitting presidents – access to state resources, control of national institutions, and voters’ familiarity with their policy positions – that make it difficult for challengers to gain access to power.

A second reason: Because multiparty elections are still a relatively new and recent phenomena, new political parties have no experience developing electoral strategies and connecting with their natural constituencies. As a result, political actors draw their strategy from old party system dynamics.

The authors highlight “the resilience of these fledgling institutions and the unabated demand for civic and political rights coming from African citizens … . While the second decade of the 21st century has been associated with greater stagnation and in some instances backsliding, it is undeniable that most African citizens have greater political rights and greater accountability from government now than they did before transitions to democracy.”

Added van de Walle: “We show that even highly imperfect elections do make a difference to the lives of citizens, as governments seek to improve social services in order to increase their popularity.”

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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Jeff Tyson