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Durham University

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The impact of elections: voting, political behaviour and democracy in sub-Saharan Africa

A research project of the Department of History, part of the Modern research group.


This research project, in which Justin Willis (principal investigator) is working with Nic Cheeseman (Oxford) and Gabrielle Lynch (Warwick), will run from 2014 to the end of 2016. It analyses the chequered history of elections in sub-Saharan Africa. While ballots in much of the continent continue to be linked to corruption, violence and political instability, recent elections in some countries have apparently confirmed a democratic transition. Combining the techniques of history and political science, the project will re- examine the relationship between an individual's experience of elections and their political attitudes and behaviours, and asks why it is that elections work better in some places and times than others.


The project is particularly concerned to explore the extent to which the quality of elections is shaped by popular expectations and demands, and challenges the idea that poor elections are solely the product of the undemocratic attitudes of state officials. It considers how different sorts of electoral experiences can lead individuals to have different political attitudes and expectations, and investigates when and how the evolution of anti-rigging attitudes and good electoral practice supports positive cycles of democratic consolidation. One of our key aims is to demonstrate how such cycles come into being so that we can show how positive experiences of democratic consolidation can be encouraged in previously authoritarian contexts.


The project covers about sixty years of history, from the immediate pre-independence elections to the present day. It covers three countries - Kenya, Uganda and Ghana. These were similar in their institutional colonial legacy: all were British territories, which saw the rapid elaboration of an electoral system in the very last years of colonial rule - but their post-independence histories differed substantially. All now share first-past-the-post and multi-party electoral systems, but with very different levels of democratic consolidation. The research will use multiple research techniques to interrogate a diverse body of material, from archival records to qualitative interviews to quantitative survey data and cutting-edge 'laboratory' work. This will allow the project team to focus on the processes of the elections themselves, and how these have both revealed and remade ideas about political action.


From the Department of History