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An_African_Election__NDCRally_Image_by_JarrethMerzOver the past two decades the countries in southern Africa have generally had ‘dominant party systems’. Such party systems consist of one large ruling party which is dominant, in terms of seats in the national assembly or incumbent advantages, and a number of small opposition parties.  The literature on dominant parties (Bogaards, 2004 and Greene, 2007) and competitive authoritarianism (Schedler, 2009 and Levitski and Way, 2010) provide useful insights for understanding the party politics of the region.  The dominant party is usually a former liberation movement which fought to end colonialism or white minority rule.  Nicholas van de Walle observes that opposition parties in the region lack the financial and organisational ability to compete with the incumbent advantages of ruling parties.  As such, they remain small and fragmented.  The dominant parties in southern Africa maintain their hold on power through a mix of co-option and coercion and are not unlike their counterparts in other competitive authoritarian states such as Mexico, Argentina and Russia.  For example, mass political rallies are held to demonstrate the ruling party’s extensive support base.  People are allegedly enticed to rallies with gifts in cash or kind.  In addition state media are manipulated to give the ruling party more coverage and draw attention to its achievements and the government attempts to control the media through regulation or intimidation.

In this scenario party politics can seem quite static, given the low chances of turnover in the elections and the poor prospects for new parties.  However, the emergence of populism is invigorating party politics if not strengthening democracy.  In southern Africa parties are labelled as populist when a charismatic party leader becomes the champion of “the people” through rhetoric which targets marginalised groups such as the unemployed youth.  So called populist leaders promise to create jobs and provide resources for poor people with scant regard of how they can achieve this given size of the economy.  Such populist parties inject competition into the otherwise stagnant party system and provide a voice for numerous poor voters who often feel neglected by established parties.  However, the difficulties they encounter in terms of delivery provide little impetus to steer away from competitive authoritarianism and introduce reforms that would promote democracy by levelling the playing field or improving accountability.  These arguments are illustrated by the cases of Zambia and South Africa.

Political parties in Zambia exhibit very little ideological and programmatic variation.  All parties focus on development since Zambia is a lower-middle income country.  Copper is the main source of foreign exchange and governments are keen to remain investor-friendly and donor-friendly.  Parties thus have little scope to differentiate their policies or promises.  However, Micheal Sata effectively used populist promises of jobs and a new constitution to distinguish his party, the Patriotic Front (PF), which won the 2011 Zambian election, ten years after its inception.  Political scientists such as Danielle Resnick, Nic Cheeseman and Miles Larmer aver that Sata won by using a combination of populist messages which appealed to cross-ethnic, poor, urban voters with ethnically-motivated support in rural Bemba-speaking areas. The PF manifesto had strong leftist rhetoric but once in power the party followed a neoliberal agenda.  They have been accused of nationalisation and suspending mining licenses, but this only occurred to reverse corrupt privatisation by their predecessor and when there was serious labour abuse, respectively.  Sata died in 2014 but his legacy enabled the PF to narrowly win the 2015 presidential by-election with appeals for continuity, in spite of delayed campaigning due to internal disputes regarding the selection of the presidential candidate.

In South Africa the main stage for political competition has shifted inside the dominant African National Congress (ANC) which attained electoral landslides since 1994.  Factional struggles within the party reached an apex in 2008 when President Thabo Mbeki neared his term limit but was determined to prevent the allegedly corrupt vice-president Jacob Zuma from succeeding him.  Zuma used pro-poor populist rhetoric to position himself as a leader who was in touch with the people to build grassroots support from the local party branches up to the provincial level.  Like Sata though, when he became president Zuma adhered to the ANC’s largely neoliberal policies.  Further discord within the ANC resulted in the formation of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) by Julius Malema, the expelled ANC Youth League president.  Malema gained notoriety as a staunch ally of Zuma but his own ambitions created a rift and he is now the most vocal critic of the ANC.  He cultivated a more radical populist rhetoric than Zuma, encompassing nationalisation of the mines and land reform without compensation to address the resilient inequality which the ANC has been unable to reduce.  The EFF was formed only eight months prior to the 2014 election and won 6% of the vote, attesting to the effectiveness of populism as a voter mobilisation strategy.

While populism has worked well in attracting votes for the PF, ANC and EFF, the ability of populists to deliver on their promises is questionable.  However, although populist parties seem as constrained by market forces and the neoliberal order as their predecessors and their record in office has been contrary to their rhetoric, they have started to debate some contentious issues.  The Zambian government is proposing to raise the royalty tax on mines to 8% for underground mines and 20% for open cast mines and to eliminate the corporate tax rate of 30%.  They argue that the country loses out on tax revenue based on profits due to transfer pricing and that the revised tax regime would be fairer to the source country.  In South Africa the ANC is engaging with nationalisation, an issue which does not fade away because it is championed by the EFF.  From this perspective, populism is enhancing the representativeness and responsiveness of governments in the region by compelling them to engage with policy debates which reflect the concerns of millions of poor voters.  But populists have to be careful not to alienate investors and mining companies, as this could have a negative effect on employment and leave their constituents worse off.  In competitive authoritarian states there is a risk that when co-option becomes less tenable coercion can increase.  Failing populists may resort to coercion when their rhetoric no longer brings in the votes.  Such coercive tendencies have manifested under the PF although this has been blamed on the late president Sata rather than the party.  Recently Zuma has used the security forces to remove the EFF members from parliament to avoid questions about reimbursing the state for renovating his private residence.  Populist parties have made elections more competitive and parliamentary debates livelier, but ruling parties continue to rely on incumbent advantages to maintain power.




Bogaards, M. (2004). Counting Parties and Identifying Dominant Party Systems in Africa. European Journal of Political Research, 43, 173-197.

Cheeseman, N., & Larmer, M. (2013). Ethnopopulism in Africa: opposition mobilization in diverse and unequal societies. Democratization, (ahead-of-print), 1–29.

Greene, K. (2007). Why Dominant Parties Lose: Mexico’s Democraatisation in Comparative Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Levitsky, S., & Way, L. (2010). Comparative Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Resnick, D. (2013). Urban Poverty and Party Populism in African Democracies. Cambridge University Press.

Schedler, A. (2009). Sources of Competition Under Electoral Authoritarianism. In S. Lindberg (Ed.), Democratisation by Elections. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Van de Walle, N. (2003). Presidentialism and Clientelism in Africa’s Dominant Party Systems. Journal of Modern African Studies, 41(2), 297-321.




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