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Between Constituents and the Capital: Understanding African Legislators


What motivates legislators in executive-dominated political systems in Africa to focus their attention on national rather than local activities? Scholars and policymakers argue that legislators in such systems have little incentive to participate in national-level politics, leading to parliaments that merely rubber-stamp the policies of the executive. Rather, time is allocated to local issues: providing services to constituents or simply engaging in clientelism and patronage politics.

I question this conventional view and explore three specific questions central to representation and legislative politics in Africa. First, what do voters want from elected representatives in these systems? Second, what do these politicians actually do once in office? Third, why do parties in these contexts often choose processes that ignore the call of their elites and supporters for greater intra-party democracy, and what are the consequences?

In answering these questions, I present a theoretical framework of voter preference for legislator attention as a time allocation problem, and test both my and other prominent theories using data that I gathered from my field and off-site dissertation research in Kenya, including a nationally representative survey experiment, an in-depth focus group discussion, tens of thousands of parliamentary debate transcripts, and the complete universe of 2017 Kenyan party primary aspirants records.

I find that voters have sophisticated understandings of the legislators' role, and prefer some balance between local and national service. Moreover, I find that evidence for electoral connection: electorally secure politicians engage in more nationally oriented speeches, while vulnerable politicians engaged in more locally oriented speeches. Finally, I show that both the ruling and opposition parties are more likely to hold primary elections in party strongholds rather than competitive districts, and that the ruling party was much more likely than the opposition to hold primaries across all levels of partisan support. Taken together, these findings question the idea of African exceptionalism, and make important contributions to the study of legislative politics and politician accountability in Africa.

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