Just look at the last three years.
In 2021, the Tonse Alliance opposition headed by Lazarus Chakwera defeated the incumbent, Peter Mutharika, in Malawi. A year later, Hakainde Hichilema and his United Party of National Development (UPND) repeated the trick, beating President Edgar Lungu in an opposition landslide in Zambia.
Then last month, William Ruto continued the trend, capturing the presidency in Kenya. Although Ruto had been Deputy President since 2013, the election cast him in the role of the “opposition” candidate after President Uhuru Kenyatta broke a promise to back his candidacy and instead threw the weight of the establishment behind his newfound ally, Raila Odinga. Just a few weeks later another opposition party, this time in Angola, would have added to the list if the elections had not been manipulated from start to finish by the ruling MPLA.
These examples reflect a broader trend across the continent. Despite the rise of more sophisticated strategies of election rigging and censorship, an increasing number of countries have seen a transfer of power. Even in places where governments remain undefeated, such as Namibia and South Africa, the gap between the ruling party and the opposition has narrowed considerably. The message for ruling parties is clear: perform poorly in the context of economic decline, and you are operating on borrowed time.
Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Liberia and Sierra Leone all go to the polls in 2023, and governments, opposition parties and civil society groups are all wondering what these trends mean for them. So why are opposition parties on the rise, which governments are most vulnerable to losing power, and what determines whether the ruling party can avoid electoral defeat?
The rise of the opposition
The recent success of the opposition has been driven by the coalescence of three main factors. First, opposition leaders are getting better at their craft. In Gambia (2016) and Malawi (2020) the defeat of the government was made possible by the formation of broad and effective coalitions, ensuring that unpopular leaders could not retain power by dividing the opposition.
In Kenya, Ruto benefited from experience of both winning and losing elections as part of other leaders’ campaigns and correctly divined that the power of the “Big Man” politics for which Kenya is well known had waned. Instead, he focussed on bringing in lower level leaders who could deliver constituencies and counties, while allowing the campaign to focus on his distinctive narrative, which painted Ruto as a hard working “hustler” willing to fight for ordinary Kenyans against an out of touch set of political “dynasties”.
Second, increasingly well-educated electorates with considerable experience of multiparty politics – after thirty years of going to the polls – are increasingly frustrated with poorly performing governments. While support for democratic government has remained robust in the last ten years, satisfaction with how democracy is performing has declined, and there is a growing recognition of the impact of corruption on public services and the lives of citizens.
These changes have been significant, but their impact would not have been transformational if they hadn’t taken place in the context of severe economic challenges. Falling employment and eroded savings during the pandemic have been followed by rising prices, causing real pain for citizens. This third trend, and the difficulty that governments face in sustaining living standards, has given public criticism of corruption greater bite and blown wind into the sails of opposition leaders.
The challenge that these shifts represent for ruling parties in Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Zimbabwe is brought home by recent research conducted by Cheeseman with Anne Pitcher and Peter Penar.
That analysis, based on an analysis of Afrobarometer survey data from 33 countries, finds that support for opposition parties in Africa tends to be higher when citizens believe that the economy is badly managed, are less satisfied with public services, and inflation is lower.
This means that ruling parties cannot afford to underperform – neither ethnicity, patrimonialism, nor clientelism will insulate governments from future electoral defeat.
So how can governments respond? Ruling parties can insulate themselves against these trends in two main ways: maintaining legitimacy and increasing repression.
This raises the question of where legitimacy comes from. Legitimacy stems from responding adequately to popular expectations. It can be built up, like capital, by showing a track record of delivering what people value most. That usually means stability, which is especially prized in contexts that have experienced turmoil and violence. Governments seen to be able to defend the territory from armed struggle, crime and violence enjoy one of the most basic forms of legitimacy capital, that of the protecting authority.
But just like citizens want to go about their lives unthreatened, they also want to be economically comfortable. Governments who offer their population economic opportunities and afford them essential services while improving the economy, enjoy stronger legitimacy. If governments can establish a good record on the twin pillars of stability and economic well-being, they can draw down on their reserve of legitimacy when times are hard.
If governments are not inclined to move in this direction, or are too incompetent to do so, the sad reality is that they are likely to fall back on repression. Ruling parties in countries such as Uganda and Zimbabwe have already moved to do this, creating a second set of states in which high levels of opposition support do not lead to political change.
During the last Ugandan election, opposition leader Bobi Wine faced occasional arrest and constant harassment, while hundreds of his supporters were arrested, tortured, and in some cases killed. Not content with this, the government committed electoral fraud to ensure President Museveni secured the desired share of the vote.
But, as conflict studies teaches us, repression is not always easy to deploy and too much can backfire. It is typically most feasible where the security forces have become politicized and are deeply invested in the survival of the government, and where targeted violence is more publicly acceptable because it can be sold as being necessary for political stability.
In other words, legitimacy is also important when it comes to sustaining the use of force, because it reduces the political costs to leaders in terms of losing public support. This is precisely why so many governments have invested in promoting what Terence Ranger called Patriotic History, a particular view of the past that seeks to legitimate the use of violence against alleged enemies of the state.
So where is intense repression likely to be most effective in the next two years? Because coercion is most sustainable where the security forces are the government and vice versa, and where at least some of society can be persuaded that repression serves the greater good, retaining power through force is most feasible in Zimbabwe.
Under President Mnangagwa, the military has become ever more fused with the government. This doesn’t mean that Mnangagwa will inevitably retain power – he is currently behind in the polls. But opposition leader Nelson Chamisa will have even more barriers to overcome than his counterparts in Liberia and to a lesser extent Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
If governments in these countries cannot find other ways to boost their legitimacy, they may well be the next victims of Africa’s rising opposition tide.