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Monday, 6 October 2008

Are opposition parties doomed in Africa?

A piece in the Namibian New Era argues that African opposition parties are doomed, and the primary reason is the economy :

Contemporary history of former liberation movements that have ascended to power reveals that their downfall from power was necessarily precipitated by their mismanagement of the economy and not their political opponents.

Zambia’s UNIP under President Kenneth Kaunda was undermined by the Zambian economy more than anything else and lost the elections to the MMD of Frederick Chiluba.

Zimbabwe is a repeat of the same scenario. Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC’s electoral fortunes are borne by the crumbling economy more than the strength of his policies or leadership. In the same way, President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF suffered an electoral set back during the March parliamentary elections this year because of the economic meltdown in that country.

In Botswana, the ruling BDP is still growing strong thanks in part to a buoyant and vibrant economy. The BDP has never lost elections since 1966 when that country became independent. Swapo too, it would appear, is set to rule this country unless it seriously mismanages the economy. Its Achilles heel it would seem would not be its political foes but could be the economy.

The bottom line is, Namibians like all reasonable people will never ditch something that they know and believe to work for something that they do not know however much they are told the change will bring a much better life.

Somebody will need to disable the Namibian economy completely before the people can ask someone else to fix it. That is the logical lesson to draw from others experiences and the current situation in the country. And that is what the ruling party must focus on, not the current generation of opposition parties.

I can see why this argument may be appealing, but I am not entirely persuaded. For what the author says to be true, we have to accept two critical assumptions : 1) Southern Africans are basically more risk averse than other people in the world. They dare not risk anything to get ahead. 2) Southern Africans only compare their economic performance with respect to the past. They never really see that the countries can be far better than they are. I struggle to see why these two assumptions are necessarily true.

Surely the most obvious explanation is that the electoral system in most of these countries perpetuates incumbency? Many of these countries have first past the post (FPTP) systems. FPTP requires the reach and depth of organisation and electoral platform that is frankly beyond many of these opposition parties, especially where the incumbent political elites are only too eager to use government resources to keep hold on power. See In rich Zambians' palm.. where I touch on this.

Incidentally, 'ideological differentiation' among political parties is actually a product of contestable electoral systems. Asking parties to be 'ideologically different', as seems to be the call recently, misses the point (something I forgot to make in response to the Azwell Banda article - see Politics and poverty.... ) . What is the point of inventing new policies, at some financial cost to the organisation (its not cheap inventing policy platforms!) which are different from the incumbent if your policies will never see light of day ? I believe correctly understood, the lack of ideological differentiation is simply an attempt by opposition parties to manage their costs down, in face of low expectations of getting into power - mimicking other policies keeps the financial costs down. So those who want more ideological differentiation should push for making the system more competitive. Innovation always comes through competition - whether in product markets or in the political marketplace. For the avoidance of doubt I don't believe the route to more political competition is through political funding - see Sakism and When hichilenomics met sakism...


  1. Here is an interesting question:

    What would democracy look like without opposition parties?

    I think the old Soviet Union before Stalin comes to mind, with Soviets (councils).

    What strikes me is that people never want opposition, which is often seen as disharmony.

    People seem to like National Unity Governments, people getting together, etc.

    What I think is that there is an absence of a very strong local government, where democracy could have more impact than at a national level.

    How about a system where all national politicians have to come up through local government? First run as a local council leader, before you can run for MP?

  2. "What strikes me is that people never want opposition, which is often seen as disharmony."

    Yes! Its a cultural thing. We think that competition is not in tune with our values...possibly also a throwback from the days of!

    But I think with more elections people will learn that competition is actually a good thing...if you can develop systems that foster political competition or atleast have a more contestable system good ideas can emerge...and you can have real ideological differentiation..

    I am not really persuaded about the local government argument...I mean after all it is the likes of SWAPO and others that have resources to go to the lowest level...just how would a strong government foster electoral competition?


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