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Ethnic Voting and Accountability in Africa: A Choice Experiment in Uganda

  • Elizabeth Carlson

The strong support that African presidents retain among voters of their own ethnicity, despite clear evidence of shirking and corruption, has prompted numerous empirical investigations into whether an incumbent's ethnicity or performance is more important to African voters. The model of vote choice underlying almost all of these studies is additive and implies that either coethnicity or good performance can increase a candidate's vote share. However, there is little theoretical justification for such a model. In the dominant theory of ethnic voting in Africa, coethnicity is a signal of better outcomes, indicating that ethnicity and performance are not separate considerations. Using an experiment that is designed to determine how Ugandan voters make choices, the author shows that the effects of coethnicity and good performance interact: neither attribute increases support for a candidate in the absence of the other. Though previous analyses indicate that, all else being equal, voters always prefer coethnics, this study demonstrates that coethnics only have an advantage when they are not shirkers. Additionally, though previous studies indicate that voters always prefer good performers, this analysis shows that voters are indifferent to the performance of non-coethnic candidates. The article provides evidence that this pattern is in fact a result of voters' beliefs that they will only receive future goods from coethnics, making a demonstrated ability to provide such goods relevant for the electability of coethnic candidates, but not for non-coethnics. Since a large number of African voters do not share the ethnicity of their incumbent, this finding has troubling implications for accountability of African leaders.

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* Data collection and analysis was supported by the National Science Foundation, the UCLA International Institute, Stanford CDDRL, and the Yale Program on Democracy. I thank Daniel Posner, Craig McIntosh, Miriam Golden, Edmond Keller, Simeon Nichter, Natan Sachs, Gwyneth McClendon, Matt Golder, and Sona Golder, as well as many members of the Working Group on African Political Economy, and several anonymous reviewers for their invaluable suggestions on earlier drafts of the project in general. I especially thank my research manager, Kenneth Ekode, and his team, for able research assistance.

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World Politics
  • ISSN: 0043-8871
  • EISSN: 1086-3338
  • URL: /core/journals/world-politics
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