Strong parties, weak parties: Divergent pathways to democracy in sub-Saharan Africa

Rachel Beatty Riedl*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

3 Scopus citations


Dramatic domestic transformations occurred across sub-Saharan Africa in the late 1980s and early 1990s as formerly single-party regimes faced a new global context. The end of the Cold War and the ascendant West provided one dominant model – and primarily one type of donor – to the aid- and security-dependent African states. So in contrast to earlier periods of democratization in other regions of the world, the immediate impetus for institutional reform across sub-Saharan Africa in this period was largely external. Exogenous international tectonic shifts pushed countries across the continent to implement the new standard for political liberalization: multiparty elections and universal suffrage in one fell swoop. As is well documented, this shift from de jure single-party rule to multiparty competition did not guarantee democracy or stability. The result was a mix of new forms of autocracy (generally competitive authoritarian), electoral democracies, and unstable “bouncers” marked by regime instability. This variation of regime outcomes is not explained by existing theories of international linkage, which was similarly weak for all countries. These outcomes also defy correlations with levels of economic development or types of inequality. The struggle for power and resources in Africa is not between class interests, or rich and poor. In these postcolonial states, with low levels of development, small individual tax bases, and weak private sectors, the fight for power and resources is over access to the central state. Competition for power is organized through vertically structured social networks and intra-elite struggles, rather than horizontal divisions over redistribution. And decades following the transition to multipartism, the full spectrum of regime outcomes cannot be explained by an institutional legacy of white settler party competition, given the limited scope of that experience. In contrast to these prevailing theories of democratization, I argue that sub-Saharan Africa's regime outcomes are best explained by attention to the joint influence of authoritarian party legacies and the contemporaneous presence of security threats during the transition to multiparty competition. Authoritarian party legacies are significant because they determine the extent of social base support the incumbent party can transfer into the multiparty era. The extent of social base strength accumulated is a specific type of party strength that determines the extent to which the party can craft new rules of the game in their perceived favor and mobilize the electorate into new stable patterns of representation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationParties, Movements, and Democracy in the Developing World
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages35
ISBN (Electronic)9781316661581
ISBN (Print)9781107156791
StatePublished - Jan 1 2016

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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