Sebastian Elischer. 2014. Political Parties in Africa: Ethnicity and Party Formation

By Knowlton, Nicholas | African Studies Quarterly, December 2014 | Go to article overview

Sebastian Elischer. 2014. Political Parties in Africa: Ethnicity and Party Formation


Knowlton, Nicholas, African Studies Quarterly


Sebastian Elischer. 2014. Political Parties in Africa: Ethnicity and Party Formation. New York: Cambridge University Press. 336 pp.

Elischer's text is both one thing and another: it is at once a straightforward taxonomic exercise, and yet, the results of this exercise produce something more profound. At the outset, Elischer highlights the problematic nature of studying and conceptualizing political parties in Africa. First, the study of African politics has tended to be reluctant regarding analysis of African political parties due to the historical tendency to characterize politics on the continent through aspects of personal rule and neopatrimonialism. Secondly, when the study of African politics has considered the role of political parties, it has often treated ethnicity to be the general organizing principle, and has additionally regarded ethnic politics as inimical to the advancement of democracy on the continent. Thirdly, general analyses and typologies of political parties tended to be based on the European experience. As a result, discussion of political parties in Africa were likely to be dismissed as secondary to the politics of personal rule, and if they were considered at all, would furthermore be problematized for their failure to comport with the Western model of party formation.

In taking on this challenge, Elischer explains the intellectual history of party formation and shows that the study of African politics not only ought to consider the dynamics of political parties in the era of post-Cold War democratization, but also that extant typologies of political parties remain insufficient in explaining the variety of political parties in Africa. In correcting for these challenges, Elischer proposes an alternative typology that, in his view, correctly accounts for the variety of parties on the continent. Utilizing an amended version of Diamond and Gunther's (2001) previous party typology that distinguishes parties by their goals, electoral strategy, organization, and social base, Elischer produces a five-fold typology for the African context: 1) mono-ethnic parties, whose interests primarily reside within the promotion of the ethnic group; 2) ethnic-alliance parties, where, despite transcending parochial ethnic interests, generally produce alliances of convenience usually lasting no longer than a single election; 3) (ethnic) catch-all parties, where alliances among ethnic groups being generally more robust than their ethnic-alliance counterparts effectively transcend ethnic politics; 4) programmatic parties, whose interests concern the promotion of ideas or a particular ideology; and 5) personalistic parties that are built around the promotion and advancement of a particular leader or elite-member of society. …

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