WP26: Does ethnicity determine support for the governing party

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Working papers
Norris, Pippa, and Robert Mattes

Structural theories predict that the cues of social identity, particularly ethnicity, should exert a strong influence upon voting choices and party support in developing societies which are characterized by low levels of education and minimal access to the news media. To explore these issues, this study seeks to analyze the influence of ethno-linguistic and ethno-racial characteristics on identification with the governing party in a dozen African states. Ethnicity is compared with other structural and attitudinal factors commonly used to explain patterns of partisanship in many countries.

The study draws upon the first round of the Afrobarometer, a cross-national representative survey of political and social values conducted in 1999-2001 in twelve nations in Sub-Saharan Africa, ranging from Botswana to Zimbabwe. We establish three main findings: 

  • Even with social and attitudinal controls, ethnicity is a significant predictor of party support in most, although not all, African societies under comparison.
  • Yet the strength of this association varies cross-nationally, with the linkages strongest in societies divided by many languages, such as Namibia and South Africa, while playing an insignificant role in African countries where ethno-linguistic groups are more homogeneous, including Lesotho and Botswana.
  • Moreover structural explanations are limited: evaluations of the policy performance of the party in government also influenced patterns of party support, even with prior social controls.

The conclusion summarizes the results and considers their broader implications for understanding the political role of ethnicity within plural societies.