Have the cake and eat it The rational voter in Africa

Staffan I. Lindberg


A vast literature suggests that voters in new democracies ‘sell’ their vote to patrons providing private or small-scale club goods, or, alternatively, that such goods are distributed along ethnic lines to reinforce ethnic voting. In either case the outcome is undermining democratic accountability. This study finds that citizens in one new democracy – Ghana – expect (and get) the patronage but at the same time engage in economic voting. Eighty-five percent of citizens first and foremost expect their legislators to supply private or small-scale ‘club’ goods. This acts as a strong incentive for politicians to actually supply such goods, which is confirmed by participants’ observational data and more than 250 interviews conducted by the author. Despite this, citizens do not vote based on how well or how poorly incumbent MPs provide clientelistic goods. A multivariate analysis reveals that voting for the opposition or the incumbent is determined by evaluations of the state of the national economy and of the government’s policies. What the literature has portrayed as an ‘either-or’ is ‘both’, and this is perfectly rational: Extract as much as one can in terms of private and small club goods but vote based on economic factors. The literature suggests that clientelism dominates elections in newer democracies and thus undermines democracy. The findings from this study suggest that while distribution of clientelistic goods is common, this does not necessarily undermine the mechanism of democratic accountability in elections.