In this blog, Osei Anja challenges the idea that African parties are ‘weak’ by looking at political parties in Ghana. Anja Osei is working at the Institute of International Politics and Conflict Studies in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Konstanz. This blog is based on his recent article in the Journal of Contemporary African Studies.
African parties are often presented as ‘weak’ parties. They seem to lack not only a stable and functioning party apparatus, but also a clear programmatic appeal. Because of these weaknesses, their possible contribution to democratic development is often questioned. In fact, many political parties in Africa do not conform to the ideal of effective mass parties which perform democracy-promoting functions such as candidate nomination, electoral mobilisation, societal representation, or interest aggregation. We must however take into account that they operate under very difficult conditions such an uneven and weakly developed infrastructure, low living standards and low levels of education. Against this background, it is questionable whether the Western European model of the mass based party is applicable at all. Yet, not all parties are ‘weak’ to the same extent, as I demonstrate below using the case of Ghana.
In Ghana, parties are objects of passionate support. The party system is dominated by the two major parties NDC (National Democratic Congress) and NPP (New Patriotic Party). Both of them are comparatively well organised on the ground and possess a network of party branches all over the country. Although ideological competition may not take centre stage in elections, both parties have relatively clear programmatic appeals. The NPP claims to stands for the rule of law, (liberal) democracy/good governance and freedom of business and of the individual. The NDC in contrast portrays itself as a “centre-left” or social-democratic party that is focused on the poor, vulnerable and socially disadvantaged. State intervention is seen as critical to securing basic social services and the pure liberalism of the NPP is outwardly rejected. This does not necessarily mean that there are substantial ideological differences between the parties: in practice, the NPP embraces social-democratic policies and the NDC is not principally against market reform. However, the master narratives of both parties are opposed to each other and thus play a role in the structuring of political competition.
While parties in Ghana have very few institutionalised contacts to civil society groups, they have developed alternative strategies to reach out to rural voters. Both NDC and NPP try to win over influential people on the local level who are supposed to deliver the votes of their respective communities. These can be chiefs (who are however not allowed to be openly involved in party politics), or other local ‘big men’. Another way of mobilising voters at the grass-roots level are so- called house-to-house campaigns. Typically, such campaigns come not only with a political message, but also with a small gift (cola, water, food, as well as drinks and cash for the elders). In addition, parties take advantage of any occasion where people come together, such as funerals, local festivals, marriages and naming ceremonies, communal labour exercises, and many more.
The flip side of this localised mobilisation strategies is the fact that they often go together with clientelistic relationships. This is also obvious in the candidate selection processes where irregularities, vote-buying and other forms of manipulation prevail in both parties. While the interference from above is one factor that distorts the nomination process, financial capability is another. Local candidates receive little or no support from the central party and so they usually have to finance their campaigns from their own funds. This excludes candidates with little capital from even contesting their own party’s primaries. While the expenditures in the primaries and parliamentary elections are enormous, they are exorbitant in the competition for the presidential slot. As a consequence, the top level positions in the political system are reserved to a small circle of extremely wealthy individuals while the poor are excluded from rising in the party hierarchy. This means that while Ghanaian parties nominally fulfil the function of candidate nomination, they do not always nominate the most able candidates but rather those who are rich enough to engage in the political game.
To sum up, the example from Ghana shows that parties in Africa are not necessarily ‘weak’ as they are sometimes presented. NDC and NPP are organised all over the country, mobilise substantial numbers of voters at each election, and provide at least a rough ideological orientation to them. It is also worth noting that parties in Ghana have successfully adapted to the context in which they exist. The socio-economic context coupled with the fact that there is no public funding for political activities, however, has some wider implication for political participation and democratic development. First, it distorts political competition by disadvantaging small parties with few resources. Secondly, it keeps the rural and urban poor outside of the active decision-making process. Thus, political parties in Ghana still have some deficits in the realm of internal democracy and vertical accountability – to a certain extent they “belong” to those who finance them.