in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics
On a continent where the majority of people are poor, do political parties represent class cleavages? Do parties have strong linkages to ordinary voters? Do economic policies address their needs? In the initial years following democratic transitions across the African continent in the 1990s, the answers to such questions were negative. Clientelism and patronage were the principal means by which parties interacted with their constituencies; elites and elite interests determined the objectives of political parties; voters in many African countries shifted parties frequently; and neoliberal economic policies largely reflected the preferences of foreign donors and international financial institutions. As parties and voters have adjusted to the institutional arrangements and political demands associated with democracy, a more heterogeneous political landscape has materialized since 2010. Party systems demonstrate distinct patterns of variation, from the more stable, institutionalized systems in Ghana and Botswana to fluid, inchoate configurations in Benin and Malawi. These variations in the degree to which party systems have institutionalized affect economic policy choices by parties and those who benefit from them. Furthermore, democratic politics has intensified pressures on ruling parties to provide goods such as electricity and education. Here too, patterns of goods provision show substantial variation over time and across countries, calling attention to the differences in the incentives and capacities of parties to respond to distributive demands by the electorate.To explore the political and economic heterogeneity of contemporary Africa, scholars have combined well-established qualitative and comparative approaches with new analytical tools. The use of cross-national public opinion surveys, field and survey experiments, satellite imagery, and geo-coded data have enabled more systematic, fine-grained study of the economic determinants of party system competition, economic voting, the distribution of goods, and the management of private sector development by ruling parties in recent years. These empirical approaches enrich understanding of the relationship between parties and political economy in Africa and facilitate more fruitful comparisons with other regions of the world.