Skip to main content

Note Conference

Party Systems and the Future of Democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa

International conference held on 22-24 September 2011

Scarman House, University of Warwick


Conference conveners


Renske Doorenspleet renske.doorenspleet@warwick.ac.uk

Associate Professor in Comparative Politics/Director Centre for Studies in Democratization, Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick, UK


Lia Nijzink lia.nijzink@uct.ac.za

Senior Researcher in Law and Politics, Department of Public Law, University of Cape Town, South Africa


Research theme

The conference addressed one of the key issues that confront emerging democracies in Sub-Saharan Africa: what are the current party system configurations on the continent and what are their consequences for the future of democracy?

We are living in an era with an unprecedented number of democracies all around the world. Particularly since 1989, democracy has spread not only to Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America, but also to parts of Africa. Experts were worried that the adoption of democracy would lead to highly fragmented party systems in Africa because of the deep ethnic divisions on this continent. However, this did not happen. In contrast, party systems with one major dominant party emerged and have prevailed in many new African democracies.

Surprisingly, research on this phenomenon has been scarce. There are not many studies of the concepts, measurements, and explanations of party systems with one dominant party in general, let alone in the African context. Our project aims to fill this gap.

While our 2010 conference focused on possible explanations for the endurance and decline of one-party dominant party systems, this conference focused on the consequences of one-party dominance.

One party dominant systems are assumed to be a problem for democracy on the continent (Giliomee and Simkins 1999; Schlemmer 2006). At the same time, they have emerged through the ballot box and can thus be seen as an expression of the will of the people. This apparent contradiction required us to take a closer look at the consequences of one-party dominance in order to better understand the challenges one-party dominance presents for the development and deepening of democracy and good governance on the continent.

What are the consequences of different of party systems? The debate in the literature has drawn attention to the merits or flaws of multi-party versus two-party systems, and tries to tackle the question which type of party system is best for democracy. It has been argued that two-party systems, which tend to lead to single party governments, are better at governing (see e.g. Lardeyret 1993) and are more responsive and accountable, while multi-party systems are better at representing and promote political participation (Jackman 1987; Blais and Carty 1996; Lijphart 1999). Because the emergence of one-party dominant systems in Africa’s developing democracies is a relatively new phenomenon, there is not yet much knowledge about how these systems contribute to the development of democracy.

One could argue that a one-party dominant system can be expected to be good at governing (perhaps even better than a two party system) and fairly good at representation, given the often broad character of the dominant party. One-party dominant systems might even have a fair degree of political competition, albeit within the party, between different party factions and/or between different smaller parties of the opposition. What they lack is an alternation of the party in power and thus the possibility that the opposition takes over government. A one-party dominant system might be more suitable for developing African democracies than a two-party or multi-party system because one-party dominant systems seem to be better in preserving stability and promoting much needed socio-economic development (cf. Giliomee 1998: 132). For example, it cannot be rejected that the ANC in South Africa played a crucial role in stabilizing the new democratic regime. In the turbulent period immediately after the end of Apartheid, a more competitive party system might have led to violent competition that would have destroyed democracy right at the beginning of the democratization process.

On the other hand, political competition in one-party dominant systems is constrained and limited. In a democracy, alternative preferences for policy and leadership can be pursued in the political arena; there is oppositional activity and the possibility of the opposition taking over government power. In a democracy with a one-party dominant system, however, the opposition is small, and often fragmented and toothless, which limits the strength of political competition and makes an alternation of the party in power highly unlikely. In the small body of literature on one-party dominance, several other negative consequences are mentioned, such as 1) the freezing of social cleavages on the basis of which dominant party came to power 2) weakening of an independent civil society 3) weakening of constitutional checks and balances 4) resistance of dominant party to change political institutions out of fear to lose its dominant position 5) creating political apathy and loss of voter interest 6) no clear distinction between party and state 7) reinforcing big man tendencies, patronage, and clientelism 8) eroding minority rights 9) high chance of state of emergency 10) danger of non-democratic change of power 11) increasing chance of coupes and hence political violence.

Without any empirical evidence, however, the factors above serve as points of discussion and speculation, rather than analysis and fact. A thorough analysis of the consequences of one-party dominance, both negative and positive, is the main aim of this conference.

The first part of the conference gave a general overview of theories, concepts and measurements of party systems, including one-party dominant systems. The subsequent sessions of the conference digged deeper, and focused on particular countries with one-party dominant systems, i.e. South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Mozambique, and explored what the consequences of one-party dominance are in these countries. The third session of the conference included African countries with different party system configurations in order to get a full picture of possible consequences of party systems in African democracies. Only by comparing one-party dominant party systems with different systems such as those in Ghana, Benin, Kenya and Malawi, can one start to understand the consequences of different party system configurations for the future of democracy on the continent. The concluding session summarized the findings of the case studies and explored to what extent there are general trends and overarching conclusions with regard to the potential impact – both negative and positive - of party systems on democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa.