Dr Nic Cheeseman awarded £800,000 ESRC grant to research elections in Africa

Dr Nic Cheeseman and colleagues have been awarded almost £800,000 by the ESRC to research “The impact of elections: voting, political behaviour and democracy in sub-Saharan Africa”. The project aims to break new ground by addressing the role of popular ideas regarding the (im)morality of electoral (mal)practice. Seeking to move beyond a literature that has generally focussed on the way in which ruling parties have sought to manipulate elections, Dr Cheeseman and his colleagues will investigate the extent to which electoral practice has been both driven and constrained by popular expectations and demands.

The project will not just consider what legally counts as electoral malpractice in a given country – although this clearly represents an important framework of reference for candidates, donors, electoral commissions, and judiciaries – but will focus on what is regarded as legitimate and illegitimate by citizens. While the “menu of manipulation” available to electoral contestants is broad – including ballot box stuffing, vote-buying, constituency gerrymandering, bias development spending, and the intimidation of party activists and votes – these acts are sometimes accepted or at least tolerated by ordinary people, and in certain circumstances some of these practices are even popularly supported and demanded.

Taking off from this insight, the project asks how individuals’ political experiences of elections over time have shaped their own democratic attitudes and behaviour, and how this, in turn, has shaped the expectations and demands which they bring to the electoral process. The research will also investigate how election officials – at every level – have understood their role and sought to carry out their task and what have been the roles of executive pressure and popular expectation in shaping practice.

The project will focus on Ghana, Kenya, and Uganda. These countries share a common point of departure: all were British colonies and all came to independence with a Westminster-style parliamentary system. But their subsequent histories embraced a range of electoral arrangements – single-party (Kenya), no party (Uganda), and military tutelage (Ghana and Uganda) – and while all currently have governments produced through multi-party elections, it is only in Ghana that the results have commanded widespread acceptance, while Kenya and Uganda stand as examples of increased violence and entrenched authoritarianism respectively.

In order to understand the evolution of democratic norms and practices the research will involve a wide range of methods including archival work, interviews, surveys, and games played under laboratory conditions. The research project will begin in early 2014 and last for three years.

The project is a collaboration between Dr Nic Cheeseman, Dr Gabrielle Lynch (Warwick), Prof Justin Willis (Durham), and Prof Stefan Lindberg (Florida/Gothenberg).