WP120: Urban-rural differences in support for incumbents across Africa

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Working papers
Harding, Robin

Across sub-Saharan Africa support for incumbent governments is significantly higher among rural residents than urbanites, although the magnitude of this difference varies across countries. In this paper I use public opinion data from the Afrobarometer Survey Series to provide systematic evidence of this urban-rural difference in incumbent support in 18 African countries. Moreover, I consider a number of different explanations for urban incumbent hostility, and present empirical evidence that provides preliminary support for an account that acknowledges electoral incentives created by the interaction between democracy and demography. Most simply stated, competitive elections make African governments more responsive to rural interests. Because a majority of Africans live in rural areas, democracy creates incentives for governments to favor rural interests at the expense of the urban minority, thereby resulting in dissatisfaction on the part of urban voters.A unique observable implication of this argument is that urban incumbent hostility should reduce as the urban proportion of a country’s population increases. I use individual- and national-level data in a hierarchical setting to show that this is indeed the case - while urbanites are less likely to support incumbents, this effect is mitigated by higher levels of urbanization. Along with data on perceptions of government performance across a range of policy tasks, this finding supports the argument that urban hostility results, at least in part, from the pursuance of pro-rural policies by incumbent governments.