WP19: Wide but shallow: Popular support for democracy in Africa

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Working papers
Bratton, Michael

As democratic institutions become more widespread, are they also becoming shallower? Many analysts of democratic transitions wonder whether the global expansion of the formal institutions of political competition, elections, and popular sovereignty is simply a veneer, or whether democratic preferences, procedures and habits are actually taking root. Preliminary results from the Afrobarometer's twelve-nation survey of public attitudes toward democracy and markets show that impressively large proportions of people in Africa's new multiparty regimes say that they support democracy. They especially value the political liberalization that has recently occurred in their countries, particularly when comparing present political arrangements with previous ancien regimes. But, for a variety of reasons analyzed here, their support is partial, formative, dispersed and conditional. In short, while expressed support for democracy in Africa may be wide, it is also shallow. This argument is made with reference to the following six claims, each of which is supported by survey and other data:

  • popular conceptions of democracy are tractable;
  • enclaves of non-democratic sentiment remain;
  • rejection of authoritarian alternatives does not amount to support for democracy;
  • democratization is far from complete;
  • support for democracy is dispersed; and
  • liberalization does not amount to democratization.