Far from destabilizing democratic institutions, polarization can play a vital role for opposition political parties.
That’s the eye-opening conclusion American University School of Public Affairs professor Adrienne LeBas draws in her new book, From Protest to Parties: Party-Building and Democratization in Africa (2011: OUP).
LeBas’s work studying opposition parties in the hybrid democracies of Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Kenya is based on extensive fieldwork and expanded on the dissertation she wrote to receive her PhD from Columbia University. Her field work turned her early assumptions on their heads.
“When I went into the field to write my dissertation I thought it was going to be about the choices of states and how institutions are set up and how those shape collective actions,” LeBas said. “But when I got there, what emerged from field work was this strategic use of conflict and how parties use it to become more cohesive, in order to mobilize their activists . . . I had tons of quotations from informants in which they say, ‘Whenever we hit the other side they just go close together.’”
LeBas’s scholarship looks at the hybrid democracies of Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Kenya — democracies that mix attributes of traditional democracies with authoritarian rule.
“I’m particularly interested in the weakness of opposition parties, and I argue if you want real progression toward democratization you need competitive elections,” she said. “Most of these hybrid regimes, particularly in Africa, don’t have competitive elections. Instead, the party that won the first election often retains power, or [they] get more and more fragmented party systems, which are not good for competition, or very ethnicized party systems, which are also not great for accountability.”
Field work pay-off despite risks
LeBas learned that time spent forging vital contacts within trade unions and opposition parties, and within the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF led by Robert Mugabe) was key to studying such closed and repressed regimes.
But it was a key not without physical risks. LeBas started her research in 1999, a time when foreign journalists were being thrown out of the country and friends were being detained and tortured. Living in Zimbabwe as a U.S. citizen provided her some cover, however, and she said, “In these contexts your perception of risk shifts.
“I was working on opposition politics, how people organize and campaign. The ruling party had established no-go areas, areas of the country that the opposition wasn’t allowed to move around in. The opposition party was [operating] underground. To gain access to those people to talk about these issues [I had] to rely on networks of trust and think a lot about protecting sources.”
Without the personal relationships LeBas said, “I never would have had a sense of how internal party dynamics worked and how people organized, what kinds of appeals, what kinds of debates, were occurring within the opposition party.”
Trade Unions’ role in opposition
In the book, LeBas also explores the role of trade unions in forming opposition parties in Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Kenya. In Zambia and Zimbabwe, an unanticipated consequence of having strong unions also provided the structure for political leaders to emerge.
“In both Zimbabwe and Zambia [where union membership was compulsory], they had branch-level and union-level elections, and gradually more and more radical leaderships get elected, and these trade union leaders say, ‘Listen, we need to be more autonomous from the ruling party. We need to actually make demands . . .’” LeBas said. “So over time they began to organize strikes that are only about economic issues but this teaches them, ‘Hey, we’ve got muscle, we have this ability to mobilize people.’ And then the trade unions eventually launch opposition parties.”
By contrast, in Kenya, which has no centralized trade union structure, the state maintains order regionally through ethnic brokers, splintering the opposition.
That lack of a cohesive opposition party illustrates LeBas’s central point.
“Political actors are unlikely to form the institutions required for representation and accountability unless they are pushed to do so,” she writes in the book’s conclusion. “The greatest risk to democratization is therefore not the presence of conflict but its absence.”