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Issue Brief June 11, 2024

The missing piece: Political parties are critical to democracy in Africa

By Santiago Stocker, Patrick Quirk, and Dan Scaduto

This paper is the first in the Freedom and Prosperity Center’s “State of the Parties” series analyzing the strength of multi-party systems in different regions of the world.

In 2024, as many as seventeen countries across Africa, with a total population of nearly 300 million people, will hold national elections. These electoral processes are consequential because whether they are free, fair, and transparent will help determine if the troubling trend in several countries across the continent of democratic regression, military coups, or political instability worsens—or ebbs and begins to reverse, as was recently demonstrated in Senegal.

The stakes are clearly high in these contests, which will occur in the so-called year of elections wherein more than four billion people globally are eligible to cast ballots. While the elections are important to Africa’s democratic trajectory, they are not single-handedly determinative of it.

Strong and institutionalized political parties are also key to the future of democracy on the continent; however, policymakers have not afforded this key institution much attention or associated resources. For example, the US’s national security strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa does not reference strengthening political parties despite the document’s emphasis on democracy promotion. Further, the Biden administration’s Summits for Democracy—the third of which took place in March 2024—have not included commitments from participating governments (the United States included) to strengthen political parties.

Robust political parties inform whether a political system delivers for citizens, provide a key link between citizens and their government, and foster measurable resilience against democratic erosion. For these and other reasons, therefore, political parties as a core institution of democracy will help chart the continent’s future, both in terms of freedom and prosperity.

This piece analyzes the state of political parties in sub-Saharan Africa and uses Atlantic Council Freedom and Prosperity Indexes data and other sources to show why parties are essential to democratic progress. It examines this argument through four case studies and concludes with a path forward for re-centering democracy assistance work in Africa to shore up this critical component.

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The Freedom and Prosperity Center aims to increase the prosperity of the poor and marginalized in developing countries and to explore the nature of the relationship between freedom and prosperity in both developing and developed nations.

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Image: Supporters of Kenya's opposition leader and presidential candidate Raila Odinga, of the Azimio La Umoja (Declaration of Unity) One Kenya Alliance, attend his final campaign rally ahead of the August 9th General election, at the Kasarani Stadium in Nairobi, Kenya, August 6, 2022. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya