The iron cage of democracy: Institutional similarity and stasis in African political party systems

Rachel Beatty Riedl

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


This paper asks (a) how to understand the development of new institutions in nascent democracies, and (b) what explains the persistence of institutional forms that do not conform to rationalist expectations of competitive efficiency. Much scholarship focuses on the power of strategic coordination under formal rules to shape democratic institutions, such as the form of the party system. This article contends that strict rationalist explanations of party systems leave unexplored the ways in which individual politician's and voter's strategic calculations are bounded by the organizational imperatives of systemic competition. Sociological theories of institutional development better explain the organizational logic driving party system origin and endurance in new democracies. The article uses original interview data from three contrasting cases of party system development in Africa to highlight the empirical puzzle that drives this conclusion: Despite seemingly analogous democratic origins, largely similar conditions of low economic development, high ethnic heterogeneity, and weak state capacity, as well as comparable formal electoral rules in pairwise combinations, the party systems across Africa demonstrate incredible cross-national variation in the ways in which political parties organize and compete for power. Additionally, party systems maintain these varied forms over time rather than converging on a "most efficient" model. A focus on the particular mechanisms of reproduction through institutional isomorphism contributes to the research agenda of explaining institutional development, change, and stability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-40
Number of pages40
JournalWorking Paper of the Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies
Issue number372
StatePublished - Nov 1 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Development


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