After the end of the Cold War electoral democracies were re-established on the African continent. This monograph offers the first comprehensive comparative analysis of the role elections have played in this process. The authors are extremely well qualified to do so. Jaimie Bleck is Ford Family Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame IN, with a focus on democratization, education, participation, and citizenship in African democratization processes. Her first book was on Education and Empowered Citizenship in Mali. Nicolas van de Walle is Maxwell M. Upson Professor of Government at Cornell University NJ. Among others, van de Walle has authored two of the most relevant comparative politics books on African developments in the 1980s and 1990s: Democratic Experiments in Africa. Regime Transitions in Comparative Perspective and _African Economies and the Politics of Permanent Crisis, 1979-1999.
This book on electoral politics is structured into eight chapters. First, in the introduction the “puzzle of electoral continuity between political stasis and sociological change” (p. 25) is discussed. Between 1990 and 2015, 184 multicandidate presidential elections and 207 multiparty legislative elections have been held in 46 of the 49 rapidly changing countries of sub-Saharan Africa (the exceptions being Eritrea, Somalia, and Swaziland). In fact, elections have become a regular, non-negotiable feature in almost all regimes. Many of these elections have been irregular, leading to the establishment of “illiberal democracies”. But in a number of other places, the quality of elections has increased over years, contributing to the creation of legitimate regimes and even alternation of governments through the ballot-box. “However”, the authors note, “we do not observe broader democratic consolidation in most of these countries. Instead, the democratization of the early 1990s remains incomplete in much of the region” (p. 4). With few exceptions, the dominant political class has not changed in most countries.
In chapter 2 the evolution of electoral competition between 1990 and 2015 is studied. On a broad empirical basis, the authors discuss how the first multiparty presidential election often had considerable relevance for how elections in the 1990s played out. As such, electoral competition has been dominated by the incumbent president and his party. Presidentialism and a very limited amount of electoral alternation characterize this period. Yet, at the same time electoral competition got institutionalized across the continent.
In chapter 3 the impact of elections on the quality of democracy is discussed. Bleck and van de Walle argue for a nuanced understanding of the relationship between elections and democracy in Africa and develop a middle road between those who argue that the conduct of even imperfect elections “has a prodemocratic effect such that, over time, the quality of elections should improve” and those who claim that “elections are dangerous for the stability of low-income, low-capacity political systems” or that “they even offer a way for authoritarian regimes to maintain power” (p. 64). Elections, the authors hold, “should be understood as political moments that can, but do not necessarily, push democracy forward” (ibid.)
Chapter 4 centres on political parties and electoral competition. Usually, African political parties are weak and poorly institutionalized: “They are not well rooted in society and have only limited abilities to mobilize voters” (p. 102). Following the foundational text of Lipset and Rokkan1, this section interrogates the linkage between parties and party systems formed around a small number of social cleavages. The authors mainly link this question to the critical juncture of decolonization in the 1950s: Most parties failed to develop strong linkages to voters, they did not try to develop inclusive governance mechanisms, and delegitimated opposition. After 1990 many of these features simply re-emerged. In most cases the political class had not changed. But once losing political power, former single parties found it very difficult to come to power again. And regardless of how democratic a country was, the ruling party often enjoyed “legislative supermajority” (p. 103).
Chapter 5 highlights electoral candidates and their campaigns. Here Bleck and van de Walle come back to their initial observations on the liability of newness and the advantages of incumbency. Thus, “most presidential races in Africa remain candidate based; parties draw their reputation and brand from their executive candidate rather than the inverse” (p. 144). Interestingly, the authors maintain that most political parties have little understanding of who actually is voting for them and why. This is despite the debate on regional or ethnic votes. And still non-elected authorities (regional ethnic big men, religious leaders, and traditional leaders) continue to play important roles as political brokers.
Engaging with the argument that contemporary electoral politics in Africa lacks substantive issues, chapter 6 offers an analysis of the content of presidential campaigns. To the contrary, and in this way shifting the boundaries of academic debate, Bleck and van de Walle argue that “African elections are often rich in policy discussions and issues appeals but that parties tend to couch their rhetoric in valence terms that everyone can agree are important rather than taking precise positions on divisive issues” (p. 186). The authors deepen this claim by looking at six key substantive issue areas: constitutionalism and democracy, economic development, security, sovereignty, citizenship, and the distribution of natural resources. And, again, this goes back to independence time and the experience of incumbents “to claim ownership over development projects” (p. 186).
Build around the introduction and institutionalization of multiparty elections across most countries in sub-Saharan Africa as well as the massive demographic changes since 1990, the authors explore the “nature” of the African voter in chapter 7. Interestingly, Bleck and van de Walle find evidence that despite “the impact of the cross-national variation in the quality of democratic governance is surprisingly muted” (p. 219). In most analysed cases voter turnout does not vary, whether in electoral democracies or in electoral authoritarianism regimes. The authors side with the argument that, by and large, African voters are rational voters – they are making reasoned choices (admitting that, of course, there is nothing such as an “African voter”). And in face of demographics and innovations in media, the authors observe a learning curve of “the African voter”: “Africans are learning to be more demanding of their politicians, and parties are beginning to realize that they will be judged on their performance” (pp. 221f.).
And, finally, “Do African Elections Matter?”. Of course, they do. Bleck and van de Walle state that “regular multiparty elections in Africa have altered the relationship between citizens and political elites” (p. 262). African voters, the authors argue, care the most about good governance, development, natural resource distribution, sovereignty, security, and citizenship. But looking at citizens’ general support for elections (based on a discussion of Afrobarometer data – and also considering competing external support models (basically, the West versus China) – the question also remains what might happen “if elections do not improve the welfare of citizens, will African electorates eventually grow tired of casting ballots?” (p. 280).
In the future, Jaimie Bleck and Nicolas van de Walle argue, the continuity observed will diminish: executive dominance will become less important as incumbency advantage will be reduced and heightened opportunities for alternation during electoral cycles will increase; and the liability of newness will slowly fade away when “opposition parties are elected to office, they will be able to leverage those experiences to their advantage” (p. 29).
In conclusion, “Continuity in Change”, so the subtitle of this books goes, is an outstanding contribution to comparative politics in Africa. All chapters are based on national empirical data, mainly drawn from eight multiparty systems across the region (Benin, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal, Uganda, and Zambia). Thus, the authors try to work against the anglophone bias of much of the existing literature. The findings of this book, at least in the case of van de Walle, are based on 30 years of cutting-edge scholarship, also published in many articles. This book is already highly acclaimed: Nic Cheeseman – the joint editor of the journal African Affairs – has even called it “the new gold standard” (reference?). And, when looking at the literature on electoral politics in Africa, most likely he has a point. Anyway, this is a must read for anyone interested in the development of African democracies in the first 25 years after the end of the Cold War. And because of the book’s rock-solid quality and its implicit underlying current of historical institutionalism, this will certainly remain so for quite a number of years to come. Last but not least, the publisher has to be applauded for offering a softcover version of this important book which is affordable to students.
1 Seymour M. Lipset / Stein Rokkan, Cleavage structures, party systems, and voter alignments: An introduction, in: Seymour M. Lipset / Stein Rokkan (eds.), Party Systems and Voter Alignments: Cross-National Perspectives, Vol. 7, New York, NY 1967, pp. 1–64.