What can the interaction between political parties tell us about achieving stability in African countries? How do stable, institutionalised party systems evolve? This article from the journal Government and Opposition uses a range of indicators to examine party stability in Africa. Contrary to the existing literature, it finds that institutionalisation of party systems does not occur over an extended period and is largely unrelated to the electoral system.
Many democratic functions, such as the recruitment and accountability of leaders, require a stable configuration of political parties. Stability can be measured through a combination of indicators: the total number of parties; the absolute and relative number of new parties at each election; the absolute and relative number of parties voted out; and the share of seats of the two largest parties and the share of legislative seat volatility. Three criteria are used to identify democratic countries: rights of equality, multiparty elections and a minimum level of enforced political rights (a score of at least four on the Freedom House scale).
These indicators and criteria are used to examine the circumstances under which stabilisation of party systems occurs in Africa.
- Eight of Africa’s 21 democratic countries can be classified as fluid, two as de-stabilised and eleven as stable. All three groups have roughly equal shares of proportional and majoritarian electoral systems.
- Fluid party systems have a high number and turnover of parties. This fluidity is not reduced with successive elections, as mainstream theory suggests, but accentuates over time.
- Kenya and Senegal are classified as de-stabilised. Both countries had a series of elections with fairly stable party systems, before leading parties were toppled. It is now unclear in which direction they are moving.
- The eleven stable countries showing signs of institutionalisation have fewer political parties, with the main two parties holding 80-90 per cent of seats. They score better on political rights and fairness of elections.
- Eight of the eleven stable countries have one-party dominant systems. There is also a trend towards stronger legislative dominance by the ruling party.
These findings have implications for approaches to African politics:
- The fluidity of some African party systems creates democratic qualities such as competitiveness, participation and representation. However, high turnover can prevent parties cultivating long-lasting relationships with voters.
- Institutionalised party systems give rise to democratic qualities of legitimacy and predictability. The political domination that often results, however, is associated with misuse of state resources, disrespect for minority rights and authoritarian tendencies.
- There are drawbacks to the argument that Africa is fundamentally different, but also to assuming that mainstream categorisations apply. While many African parties are created through personal or elite rule, this does not mean they cannot develop into broad-based parties.
- Institutionalisation of party systems has generally been perceived as a process occurring over time leading from fluid to stable party systems. This has not been the case in Africa.
- More work needs to be done on the role of political parties in Africa’s political development, particularly in relation to the origin and nature of political parties, their ideological orientations and behaviour within and outside legislature.