The Impact of Elections: Voting, Political Behaviour and Democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa

Funding Partner

Economic and Social Research Council 

The lead research organisation for this project is the History Department, Durham University.

Principal Investigator

Nic Cheeseman

Start End Date

January 2014 - January 2017

Project Overview

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

This major research project aims to break new ground by addressing the role of popular ideas about 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 are investigating the extent to which electoral practice has been both driven and constrained by popular expectations and demands.

The project considers what legally counts as electoral malpractice in a given country – this represents an important framework of reference for candidates, donors, electoral commissions, and judiciaries – and focuses on what is seen 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, biased development spending, and the intimidation of party activists and voters – 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.

The project asks: how have individuals' political experiences of elections over time shaped their own democratic attitudes and behaviour, and how, in turn, has this shaped the expectations and demands 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 focuses 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.



Nic Cheeseman

Project Objectives

The project is primarily concerned with questions about the management of elections, public attitudes towards and involvement in elections, and the performance of democracy, and the findings will be of great relevance to donor and civil society efforts to strengthen electoral systems and the quality of democracy around the world.

The objectives are:

  • To understand the extent to which electoral practice has been both driven and constrained by popular expectations and demands.
  • To gain insights into the way in which practices of elections and electoral manipulation in the past has shaped political behaviour today.
  • To investigate the role that political parties and international election observers have played in strengthening/weakening democratic norms around elections.
  • To share findings with a broad range of academics, researchers and policy makers in the UK, the US, East Africa, and beyond.

External Partners

Gabrielle Lynch from the Politics and International Studies at Warwick University

Justin Willis from the Department of History, Durham University

Further Information

For Further information on the project, see Research Councils UK Gateway to Research Page

The impact of elections: voting, political behaviour and democracy in sub-Saharan Africa. The lead research organisation is the History Department, Durham University.


Related projects include ESRC funded analysis of Kenya's Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission:

Truth and Justice: The Search for Peace and Stability in Modern Kenya completed in 2013



Project Outputs

See a series of blog posts on Democracy in Africa. This blog is a resource for the study of Democracy in Africa.

Democracy and its discontents: understanding Kenya's 2013 elections by Nic Cheeseman, Gabrielle Lynch and Justin Willis. The article is published in the Journal of Eastern African Studies

Researching Democracy, Peace and Human Rights in Africa by Dr Nic Cheeseman. This article was written for the Skoll Foundation, set up to promote social entrepreneurship