Party, Ethnicity, and Democratization in Africa

Shaheen Mozaffar. Handbook of Party Politics. Editor: Richard S Katz & William Crotty. Sage Publications, 2006.

As they do with all sources of social cleavages, political actors activate ethnicity strategically for group organization, interest definition, and collective action to advance political goals. In democratic elections, ethnicity serves as an important source of strategic coordination over votes and seats (Mozaffar et al., 2003). Political parties rely on ethnicity for mobilizing electoral support, especially when they are organizationally and programmatically weak, as they are in many African countries (van de Walle, 2003; van de Walle and Butler, 1999). But the strategic relationship of party and ethnicity is contingent on variations in the politicization of ethnicity and in the resulting morphology and associated demography of emergent ethnopolitical groups (politicized ethnic groups) reflected in two dimensions of ethnopolitical cleavages, fragmentation and concentration.

The central argument of this chapter is that the relationship between party and ethnicity is a strategic and contingent relationship. The chapter elaborates this argument by (a) contrasting its central premises with the flawed central premises of conventional accounts of the party-ethnicity relationship, (b) clarifying how ethnicity and ethnopolitical groups and cleavages defined by it serve as sources of strategic coordination over political outcomes, (c) describing a new data set on African ethnopolitical groups and cleavages, and (d) examining the contingent relationship between two dimensions of ethnopolitical cleavages—fragmentation and concentration -and the number of parties winning votes and seats in national legislative elections and the number of parties competing in presidential elections in Africa’s emerging democracies.

The Conventional Account of the Party-Ethnicity Relationship

Conventional accounts, whether based on rational choice (Rabushka and Shepsle, 1972) or social-psychological (Horowitz, 1985) assumptions, view the party-ethnicity relationship as a reflexive isomorphic relationship in which each ethnic group represents a cleavage, is totally separate from others, is unified by the homogeneous preferences of its members, and is also sufficiently large enough to support a party by itself. Thus, ceteris paribus, large numbers of ethnic groups and cleavages exemplifying high social fragmentation increase, and small numbers of groups and cleavages exemplifying low social fragmentation reduce, the number of parties competing for votes and winning seats in democratic elections. Conventional accounts also view ethnicity as preempting other bases of interest definition and group organization and thus as the only dimension along which political parties can mobilize in democratic elections. And since conventional accounts view ethnic interests as intrinsically antagonistic, elections become a zero-sum game, engendering a spiral of ethnic outbidding that seriously threatens democratic stability.

Conventional accounts, however, differ on the degree of threat posed by ethnic pluralism and ethnic parties to democratic stability. One view is that ethnic pluralism is inherently incompatible with democracy (Rabushka and Shepsle, 1972). The other view focuses on a variety of institutional mechanisms (e.g. consociationalism, power-sharing, proportional representation, affirmative action, federalism) to mitigate, if not entirely eliminate, the threat (Horowitz, 1985, 1991, 1993; Lijphart, 1977; Reilly 2001). All accounts, however, proceed from three primordialist premises: (1) that the objective presence of ethnic markers (language, religion, tribe, caste, etc.) is prima-facie evidence of their political salience; (2) that these markers endow individuals and groups defined by them with single, immutable ethnic identities; and (3) that ethnic groups are corporate units with unproblematic solidarity as the source of cohesive voting in democratic elections.

All three premises are fundamentally flawed. The first two are invalidated by the accumulated findings of over three decades of comparative scholarship that attest to the multiplicity of ascribed identities, to the situational and instrumental malleability of ethnic identities, and to their construction and redefinition in the course of social, economic and especially political interactions (Chandra, 2001; Laitin, 1998). The third denies the presence of both inter-group and intra-group cleavages, which leads to the incorrect conflation of deeply divided societies comprised of two internally cohesive and implacably antagonistic groups with multiethnic societies comprised of large numbers of often internally divided groups, none with sufficient numerical advantage for exclusive political domination (Mozaffar, 2001). This assumption is especially problematic because it treats ethnic cleavages as sui generis, engendering a simplistic emphasis on reflexive ethnic outbidding as the dominant electoral strategy, which, if feasible at all, is most likely when group morphology results in a deeply divided society. The juxtaposition of inter-group and intra-group cleavages increases the cost of forging and maintaining group cohesion and of sustained electoral mobilization, but precisely because of this increased cost it also facilitates the formation of strategic intra-group and inter-group coalitions.

In sharp contrast to the primordialist premises of conventional accounts, the analysis presented in this chapter is premised on a constructivist conception of ethnicity that permits the treatment of ethnicity and ethnic identities defined by it as strategic resources that are contingently activated in politics, and helps to account for the strategic and contingent nature of the party-ethnicity relationship.

A constructivist conception of ethnicity, in other words, enables an analytically nuanced explication and politically mediated understanding of how ethnicity and party are related in modern democracies.

Ethnicity, Party, and Strategic Coordination

In Africa’s emerging democracies, the inherent uncertainty of electoral competition and the institutional legacies of colonial and post-colonial governance combine to underscore the salience of ethnicity as a source of strategic coordination over political outcomes and the heavy reliance of organizationally and programmatically weak political parties on it as a cost-effective instrument of electoral mobilization. The inherent uncertainty of electoral competition is heightened in emerging democracies because political actors possess incomplete information about the incentives and outcomes of new electoral institutions. Ethnopolitical groups and cleavages help to overcome this information deficit. Ethnopolitical groups do so because the ascriptive ethnic markers that define their identities, and distinguish them from other similarly constituted groups, embody information that is strategically (not reflexively) activated to define group interests and reduce the cost of collective political action in response to the institutional incentives that structure the competition for power and resources. In Africa, colonial institutions established the initial institutional incentives for constructing and politicizing ethnic groups and identities, while varied postcolonial regimes reinforced the incentives for sustaining and occasionally redefining these groups and identities.

How ethnopolitical groups facilitate, and political parties organize, strategic coordination among voters and candidates over votes and seats depends largely on patterns of ethnopolitical fragmentation and concentration. However, the nature of constructed ethnopolitical groups and the resulting cleavages in Africa reveal a complex group morphology that seriously militates against the reflexive isomorphic relationship between ethnopolitical cleavages and political parties described in conventional accounts. Specifically, African ethnopolitical demography features politically salient differences within as well as among groups. The resulting high ethnopolitical fragmentation, ceteris paribus, either produces such a high degree of vote dispersion among large numbers of small parties that most are unlikely to secure enough votes to win seats, or produces small numbers of large multiethnic parties by encouraging them to campaign for votes across both inter-group and intra-group cleavages. Either way, high ethnopolitical fragmentation is likely to reduce the number of parties, especially the number of parties winning seats.

African ethnopolitical groups, however, also exhibit the highest levels of geographic concentration in the world (Gurr, 1993) Such concentrations, especially when they exist ‘in above-plurality proportions in particular constituencies and geographical pockets’ (Sartori, 1994: 40), help to counteract the reductive effect of ethnopolitical fragmentation on the number of parties. Geographic concentration also helps to solve the collective action problem associated with the dispersion of ethnopolitical groups. Geographic concentration by itself, however, is unlikely to overcome the reductive effect of high fragmentation due to the presence of large numbers of small ethnopolitical groups. Countries with low fragmentation, moreover, feature a small number of large ethnopolitical groups that are also likely to have dispersed populations and, therefore, do not need concentrated voters to sustain a small number of parties. These variations in the configurations of ethnopolitical cleavages suggest the likelihood of an interactive effect of ethnopolitical fragmentation and concentration on the number of parties able to win votes and seats, and especially on the number of parties that are competitive in presidential elections.

The relationship between party and ethnicity takes on heightened significance in presidential elections in Africa, where all new democracies, except Lesotho and South Africa, have adopted presidential systems. Presidential elections in African countries are important for three reasons. First, because the presidency is the top prize in the political game, presidential elections attract a large number of candidates, few of whom have any realistic chance of winning. Characteristic problems of post-authoritarian democracies, such as limited experience with competitive elections, information deficit about the extent of electoral support, plus personal ambition, prevent opposition candidates from coordinating on a single candidate to oppose incumbents armed with the standard advantages of incumbency. Second, an important strategic reason for the entry of large numbers of contenders in presidential elections is that African presidents possess substantial resources for patronage. Presidential contenders with weak winning potential often expect to demonstrate sufficient electoral support to bargain entry into post-election coalitions and secure state resources for their constituencies in return for political support for the winners. Third, for leading presidential candidates the electoral base and bargaining resources possessed by weaker candidates are also strategically important because of the salience of ethnopolitical groups for electoral support. Just as it constrains political parties in legislative elections, the combination of ethnopolitical fragmentation and concentration may also constrain leading presidential candidates from securing outright electoral majorities. And since the weaker candidates often control small but cohesive blocks of votes, leading presidential contenders have strong incentives to form minimum winning coalitions with them to ensure an electoral victory and a governing majority. As in legislative elections, the extent to which strong and weak presidential contenders are able to negotiate minimum winning coalitions will depend, among other things, on patterns of ethnopolitical fragmentation and concentration.

Specifying Constructed Ethnopolitical Groups and Cleavages

The data analysis presented in the next section draws on a new data set premised on constructivist logic, that is, it classifies only ethnopolitical groups (politically constructed ethnic groups) and measures two dimensions of cleavages among them—fragmentation and concentration. It also resolves the problem of endogeneity inherent in analyzing the relationship between party and ethnopolitical groups, because parties may be the source of politicization of ethnic groups. Due to space limitations, the following discussion is very brief.

Constructivist logic turns on the notion that individuals have multiple ethnic identities that are constructed in the course of social, economic, and political interactions. Intrinsic to this logic are three specific processes that motivate the criteria for specifying ethnopolitical groups and cleavages: construction, politicization, and particization. An ethnic group is constructed when individuals in culturally plural societies self-consciously choose one or more objective ethnic markers to distinguish in-groups from out-groups. In Africa, as elsewhere, the individuals’ choice of ethnic markers and the consequent size of constructed ethnic groups are constrained by the variety, complexity and prior use of such markers, the associated cost of forming new groups and sustaining group solidarity, and colonial and post-colonial institutions of governance. Because of this process of constrained construction, African countries feature a distinctive ethnic group morphology with three defining features that are reflected in the structure of constructed ethnopolitical groups and that shape the pattern of their political interactions: (1) marked differences in group size, such that virtually no major ethnopolitical group comprises an outright majority in a country, although some comprise a large plurality; (2) considerable variety and complexity in ethnic markers, such that, even as they produce politically salient inter-ethnic differences, they also produce politically salient intra-group heterogeneity but limited cultural differences among large agglomerations of such groups; and (3) the territorial concentration of some ethnic groups that facilitates their construction as large and cohesive units for collective political action. These three features combine with the accommodation by post-colonial regimes of instrumental (‘pork barrel’) ethnopolitical demands to foster communal contention as the typical pattern of political interactions in which ethnopolitical groups serve as a cost-effective strategic resource for organizing political competition for power and resources. Communal contention, however, underscores the high startup cost of new group formation and the high maintenance cost of group solidarity, thus discouraging political entrepreneurs from exaggerating cultural differences among groups and encouraging them instead to maintain strong group identities, including some coexisting subgroup identities, that are strategically sustained by their ability to access the state and secure valued goods and services for their followers (Laitin, 1986; Mozaffar and Scarritt, 1999: 239-42; Mozaffar et al., 2003; Posner, 2003; Rothchild, 1997; Vail, 1991).

Like all social cleavages, however, not all constructed ethnic cleavages become politicized, and even fewer become ‘particized, that is, made into important lines of partisan division’ (Cox, 1997: 26; original emphasis). This crucial distinction between particization and other forms of politicization of ethnic cleavages helps to solve the problem of endogeneity in analyzing the relationship between political parties and constructed ethnopolitical groups and cleavages. The constructivist processes sketched above motivate five criteria for specifying ethnopolitical groups and cleavages.

The first, which derives from the distinction among the construction, politicization, and particization of ethnic groups and helps to avoid the endogeneity problem noted above, involves specifying only those groups that have demonstrated their actual political relevance or high potential political relevance based on past relevance, apart from or prior to particization. The decision rule established the incidence of at least one of the following several forms of longstanding politicization other than particization as a necessary and sufficient indicator of the construction of ethnopolitical groups: (a) organized group mobilization unrelated to party formation (primarily in ethnic associations or cliques of leaders within the same party, the bureaucracy, or the military); (b) articulation of grievances by leaders claiming to speak for a group rather than a party; (c) participation in collective action or (violent or non-violent) conflict with other groups or the state and being subjected to state violence; (d) encapsulation within or domination of an officially designated administrative unit; (e) occupying a disproportionate number of high positions in the bureaucracy or the military; and (f) controlling disproportionate socioeconomic resources.

The second criterion involved specifying all ethnopolitical groups, even at the risk of being overly inclusive. Thus the decision rule deliberately defined forms of non-party politicization broadly. Furthermore, the extensive secondary Africanist literature in history, anthropology, sociology, and political science was used to assess the demonstrated and potential political relevance of a wide range of ethnic groups to arrive at the list of ethnopolitical groups included in the data set.

The third criterion involved specifying ethnopolitical groups at three levels of inclusiveness in order to capture all cleavages that could influence the electoral mobilization efforts of political parties, including national dichotomous cleavages between top-level groups (which are found in 12 countries), as well as a variety of more complex multiethnic ones usually involving both middle-level groups (within or independent of top-level groups) and lower-level groups within them.

The fourth criterion involved specifying the geographic concentration of ethnopolitical groups and subgroups. As noted above, territorial concentration facilitates ethnopolitical group construction by furnishing a critical mass of individuals with similar interests based on common location, thus reducing the start-up cost of group formation and the maintenance cost of group solidarity.

Table 20.1 Average effective numbers of electoral and legislative parties, and average relative reduction of parties, classified by ethnopolitical fragmentation and ethnopolitical concentration
Ethnopolitical cleavage patterns High concentration Low concentration
High fragmentation
  • ENEP = 4.67
  • ENLP = 3.29
  • R = 0.22
  • N = 16(7)
  • ENEP = 2.17
  • ENLP = 1.80
  • R = 0.16
  • N = 13(5)
Low fragmentation
  • ENEP = 2.62
  • ENLP = 2.09
  • R = 0.21
  • N = 21(10)
  • ENEP = 2.72
  • ENLP = 1.79
  • R = 0.32
  • N = 10 (6)

Note: ENEP = effective number of electoral parties, ENLP = effective number of legislative parties. R = relative reduction of parties. N = number of elections (number of countries in parenthesis).

The final criterion concerned establishing the time frame for specifying the cleavages. Thus, to be included in the data set, ethnic groups at all levels of inclusiveness must have been politicized at least 10 years prior to the first election analyzed in each country, which helped to avoid the problem of endogeneity and the most recent evidence of their politicization must be no more than 20 years prior to this election, which helped to establish their continued, and potential for future, politicization.

Data Analysis

This section presents two sets of data analysis. The first examines the relationship between ethnopolitical cleavages and the number of parties in legislative elections by focusing on the effects of ethnopolitical fragmentation and concentration on the average effective number of electoral parties (ENEP), the average number of legislative parties (ENLP), and average relative reduction of parties between votes and seats (R). This analysis is based on the results of 60 elections to the lower chamber of national legislatures in 28 countries that made the transition to democracy from 1980. Table 20.1 reports the results.

The combination of high ethnopolitical fragmentation and high concentration produces the expected increase in the number of parties that are able to win votes and seats, as the results in the top left-hand quadrant of Table 20.1 reflect (ENEP = 4.67, ENLP = 3.29). The results in the bottom right-hand quadrant reflect the expected reductive effect of low fragmentation combined with low concentration (ENEP = 2.72, ENLP = 1.79). In these low fragmentation-low concentration countries, a large number of parties, usually associated with factional conflicts among ethnopolitical elites, enter the race, dispersing the small pool of votes among them. Thus the low ENLP value is reinforced by the high value of R = 0.32. The results (ENEP = 2.62, ENLP = 2.09) in the bottom left-hand quadrant show that, in countries with low ethnopolitical fragmentation, territorial concentration tends to reinforce the support base of the small number of ethnopolitical groups, which typically do not feature politically salient intra-group cleavages, as in Mozambique and the Republic of Congo. Where such cleavages do exist, territorial concentration helps to overcome them and mobilize support for a small number of political parties, as in Ghana and Sierra Leone.

Finally, the results in the top right-hand quadrant show that high ethnopolitical fragmentation in the absence of concentration produces the expected reductive effect on the number of parties able to win votes and seats (ENEP = 2.17, ENLP = 1.80). Here, the key mechanism that links fragmented groups to political parties is not only the combination of inter-group and intra-group coalitions but also the availability of multiple ethnic markers for mobilizing electoral support. South Africa is the notable example. There, ethnopolitical groups are highly fragmented due to substantial divisions among the nine groups that comprise the majority African population as well as among the English-speakers and the Afrikaners that comprise the white population. They are also spatially dispersed. However, the continued strategic importance of race as a cost-effective basis of electoral mobilization diminishes the political significance of intra-group cleavages among African voters, while white voters typically tend to divide their votes among several smaller parties. As a result, the average ENEP and ENLP values in South Africa over two elections are 2.2 and 2.2, respectively.

Table 20.2 Effective number of presidential parties, and winner’s vote percentage, classified by ethnopolitical fragmentation and ethnopolitical concentration
Ethnopolitical cleavage patterns High concentration Low concentration
High fragmentation
  • ENPP = 3.00
  • Winner’s vote = 51.52%
  • N = 16(7)
  • ENPP = 2.36
  • Winner’s vote = 66.51%
  • N = 11(5)
Low fragmentation
  • ENPP = 2.34
  • Winner’s vote = 59.95%
  • N = 18(9)
  • ENPP = 2.30
  • Winner’s vote = 65.57%
  • N = 17(9)

Note: ENPP = effective number of presidential parties. N = number of elections (number of countries in parenthesis).

A notable aspect of the results in Table 20.1 is the high values of R, which measures the relative reduction of parties that obtains after votes are converted into seats. Characteristic information deficit about electoral support and associated problems of strategic coordination in competitive elections do not limit the entry of large numbers of political parties in early elections in new democracies. Sources of uncertainty become sources of strategic opportunity in new democracies. But since few of these parties have any reasonable chance of winning even the minimum number of votes to win one seat, most end up garnering a miniscule percentage of votes, leading to the high R values. The slightly lower value of R (0.16) for elections in countries with high fragmentation and low concentration reflects the effects of the combination of inter-group and intra-group coalitions that help to reduce the number of parties able to win votes and seats to a minimum.

The second set of data analysis focuses on the relationship between ethnopolitical cleavages and the number of political parties running candidates in presidential elections. Table 20.2 reports the results, which show the values for the effective number of presidential parties (ENPP) and the winning candidate’s margin of victory The analysis is based on the results of 62 elections in 30 countries, and utilizes the final results in plurality systems and first-round results in two-round majority runoff systems.

As with legislative elections, the combination of high ethnopolitical fragmentation and concentration increases the average effective number of presidential parties (ENPP = 3.00). This combination of ethnopolitical cleavages also tends to produce the most competitive presidential elections, as reflected in the winning candidates’ average vote margin of 51.52%. All other combinations of ethnopolitical cleavages reduce both the average effective number of presidential parties and the level of competition. However, while the average effective number of presidential parties remains virtually the same across all these three combinations, the combination of high ethnopolitical concentration and low ethnopolitical fragmentation produces slightly more competitive presidential elections, indicating, again, the favorable effect of territorial concentration on mitigating the effects of fragmentation.

In both legislative and presidential elections, then, the spatial concentration of ethnopolitical groups helps to offset the reductive effect of ethnopolitical fragmentation on the number of political parties. It also helps to offset the reductive effect of low district magnitude. For example, in Kenya, which has the third highest fragmentation score in the data set utilized here, even a moderate level of ethnopolitical concentration offsets the constraining effect of the plurality formula in single-member districts and increases the values for both ENEP (4.0) and ENLP (3.0). And in Malawi, which also uses the plurality formula in single-member districts, high ethnopolitical concentration combines with a moderate degree of fragmentation to produce virtually identical ENEP (2.8) and ENLP (2.7) values.

As argued above, ethnopolitical fragmentation associated with the complex group morphology of African ethnopolitical groups increases the transaction cost of electoral mobilization due to the combined presence of inter-ethnic and intra-ethnic cleavages, especially if such groups are also spatially dispersed. Spatial concentration helps to reduce the transaction costs of electoral mobilization as well as the transaction costs of forging and sustaining group solidarity. But what are the social and theoretical mechanisms by which spatial concentration helps to reduce these transaction costs? The scholarship on social movements (Tarrow, 1994) offers some insights. This scholarship shows that unmediated communication of ideas, strategies, and resources is crucial for reducing the collective action costs of group cohesion. The effectiveness of such communication derives from the face-to-face interaction in small groups that typically constitutes the larger social movements as loosely linked ‘congeries of social networks’ (Tarrow, 1994: 22). African ethnopolitical groups are not social movements, but their morphologies are conceptually similar. The combinations of cleavages among and within groups that typically characterize African ethnopolitical groups diminish the effectiveness of strategic face-to-face interaction in forging groups that are sufficiently large and cohesive to sustain political parties of their own. Group concentration, however, helps to overcome this constraint. The physical proximity engendered by group concentration facilitates the strategic face-to-face interaction of small groups, which helps to solidify the otherwise loose links among the subgroups. The associated affinity of place that helps to define the common interests of the emergent, spatially anchored larger group in competitive elections thus facilitates the strategic and contingent relationship of ethnopolitical cleavages to political parties in legislative and presidential elections in Africa’s emerging democracies.


In sharp contrast to the fundamentally flawed primordialist premises and the reflexive one-dimensional understanding of the party-ethnicity relationship derived from them in conventional accounts, this chapter has argued for a conception that is grounded in constructivist premises and stresses the strategic and contingent nature of that relationship. This conception avoids the widely-held pessimistic view of an intrinsic antipathy between ethnic diversity and democracy and enables a theoretically nuanced analysis and politically mediated assessment of the conditions under which the strategic and contingent relationship between ethnopolitical cleavages and political parties might or might not sustain viable democracies. Extended analyses presented elsewhere (Mozaffar, 2004; Mozaffar et al., 2003) reinforce this conclusion as well as the brief analysis presented in this chapter. These extended analyses suggest that the strategic and contingent effects of ethnopolitical fragmentation and concentration, independently and interactively with each other and with electoral institutions, lead to a remarkable degree of stability in the number of political parties that compete in legislative and presidential elections in Africa’s emerging democracies. This stability, which obtains even in the face of a high degree of electoral volatility, offers reasons for cautious optimism about the prospects of democratic stability in the ethnically plural countries of Africa (Mozaffar and Scarritt, 2005).