Recently students of African politics have begun again to focus their attention on political parties and elections within the context of the resurgence of civil society and growing demands for democracy and multiparty competition. One of the most notable examples of this has been the work of Adrienne LeBas, assistant professor of government at American University in Washington, DC, as seen in her recent book From Protest to Parties: Party-building and Democratization in Africa (Oxford University Press, 2011). Other works have attempted to approach this subject primarily by employing quantitative data analysis, but Professor LeBas chooses a mixed methodology, engaging in the thick description of ethnography as appropriate and in a systematic application of the process-tracing approach to qualitative research.
LeBas is primarily concerned with how opposition parties have formed and been organized for electoral competition over the past two decades. She is also interested in evaluating the relationship between organized labor and the emergence of such parties. Her focus is on three hybrid regimes in East and Central Africa: Kenya, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. These regimes are considered to be hybrid systems because while their institutions, particularly elections, are democratic in form, in practice they are autocracies.
LeBas develops an analytical model conducive to understanding the complex political transitions currently taking place in Africa. The model demonstrates the interaction of social structures (institutions), human agency, and political context. What LeBas finds is that in situations where autocratic regimes have established corporatist relationships with labor organizations, trade unions have provided the opportunities for movement leadership to be attracted to and become more readily involved in national politics (Zambia and Zimbabwe). But in places where such relationships did not develop, both labor movements and opposition parties remained weak and disorganized (Kenya). It is not that there needed to be an organic connection between labor movements and the emergence of effective opposition parties, but only that a vibrant labor movement provided the basis for would-be political leaders to hone their organizational skills within the context of a complex social organization that was analogous to formal politics. Also, involvement in organized-labor institutions provided connections to a valuable constituency that could be mobilized for political purposes.
What I find particularly impressive about LeBas’s work on this project is its comparative focus and the way she went about doing her research. She carefully sifted through archival data and combined that with personal interviews, field observations collected under often difficult circumstances, and quantitative data in order to make sense of the very complex process of opposition-party formation and political competition in the countries she studied. What she finds is that the polarization that is characteristic of labor-state relations turned out to be a valuable tactic for opposition parties as they attempted to grow and become strong enough to challenge the state. The research required a good deal of time in the field as well as time for LeBas to reflect on what she had observed and studied. Her postdoctoral fellowship at Nuffield College at Oxford University in England and research support from Columbia, her graduate school, as well as from Michigan State and American University, where she has taught, provided space and intellectual stimulation for this.
LeBas’s work has implications both for research scholarship on opposition parties in developing countries and for those interested in understanding ways in which opposition parties might strengthen their relationships with civil society organizations to make them more effective when attempting to confront and change hybrid regimes. What remains to be done is to test some of the leading hypotheses and propositions put forward by LeBas in the study of other transitional polities where opposition parties are attempting to assert themselves.
Although I have never met her, I feel confident after having been introduced to her work that Adrienne LeBas is a new voice well worth listening for.
Edmond J. Keller is distinguished professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he specializes in comparative politics, particularly as it relates to Africa.