This paper analyses the parties and party systems that have begun to emerge in sub-Saharan Africa's fledgling multiparty systems. Using a data base of 87 legislative elections convened in the 1990s, the paper identifies three trends. The position of parties late in the decade is primarily tributary of their performance in the first multiparty election conducted in the early 1990s. Parties that won founding elections are almost invariably still in power. Secondly, the typical emerging party system has consisted of a dominant party surrounded by a large number of small, unstable parties. Thirdly, party cleavages have been overwhelmingly ethno-linguistic in nature, while ideological and programmatic debates have been muted and rare. The second half of the paper provides tentative explanations for these striking patterns. It emphasises the illiberal nature of most of the new African democracies, their characteristic centralisation of power around the presidency, and the pervasive clientelism that structures the relationship between the state and the citizenry. These characteristics shape the incentives faced by individual politicians and thus much of their behaviour.
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