Institutional legacies: Understanding multiparty politics in historical perspective

Rachel Beatty Riedl*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


The institutions of multiparty politics in Africa today have important causal implications for a variety of critical outcomes, such as the ability to build cross-ethnic coalitions; the stability or volatility, accountability and representativeness of elections; the extent and distribution of public services; the likelihood of authoritarian successor parties’ return to power; the durability of democracy itself; and even the very existence and salience of particular social cleavages. These contemporary formal institutions have, in some cases, been crafted de nouveau from upheaval and transition moments, but in other cases have evolved gradually out of pre-existing authoritarian-era institutions. However, even where new institutions have been crafted in the recent past from scratch, this has not occurred in a vacuum. The legacies of past struggles - modes of organisation and distribution of power and resources - have a significant influence on the possibilities for the future. This chapter demonstrates the significance of past institutional configurations - harking back to the era of supposed ‘institutionless’ politics in Africa, or the reign of the informal - in shaping contemporary multiparty politics. In doing so, it makes two corrections to existing interpretations of the political landscape. First, it is common to assert that African political parties are weak, with the assumption that parties do not structure the electoral playing field. This is an error that has serious consequences for understanding contemporary politics. Political parties across the continent vary dramatically not only in their strength, but also in the forms of territorial organisation, resources and strategies of mobilisation, internal rotation mechanisms and abilities to thrive beyond a single candidate or term in power. This variation is a global phenomenon, and understanding how parties structure the political playing field (and to what extent) is an empirical question relevant in Africa just as it is in Europe, Latin America, Asia and beyond. First, it is important to highlight the many robust political parties in Africa - including the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) in Tanzania, the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa, the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and New Patriotic Party (NPP) in Ghana, and the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) in Mozambique. They have historically distinct roots - from nationalist parties fighting for independence to revolutionary, military or multiparty opposition parties. These divergent origins offer particular opportunities for citizen-linkage strategies and power contestation, and also constrain other opportunities for adaptation and regeneration in a changing environment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationInstitutions and Democracy in Africa
Subtitle of host publicationHow the Rules of the Game Shape Political Developments
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages20
ISBN (Electronic)9781316562888
ISBN (Print)9781107148246
StatePublished - Jan 1 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)

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