WP127: Voting intentions in Africa: Ethnic, economic or partisan?


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Working papers
Bratton, Michael, Ravi Bhavnani and Tse-Hsin Chen

This paper offers a first comprehensive account of popular voting intentions in Africa’s new electoral democracies. With reference to comparative aggregate and survey data from 16 countries, we show that competitive elections in Africa are more than mere ethnic censuses or simple economic referenda. Instead, Africans engage in both ethnic and economic voting. Not surprisingly, people who belong to the ethnic group in power intend to support the ruling party, in contrast to those who feel a sense of discrimination against their cultural group. But, to an even greater extent, would-be voters in Africa consider policy performance, especially the government’s perceived handling of unemployment, inflation, and income distribution. Moreover, a full account of the intention to vote in Africa also requires recognition that citizens are motivated—sincerely or strategically—by partisan considerations; they vote for established ruling parties because they expect that incumbents will win. We show that voters attempt to associate themselves with prospective winners because they wish to gain access to patronage benefits and to avoid retribution after the election. These dynamics are most evident in African countries where dominant parties restrict the range of electoral choice.